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“I will be as vigorous in protecting you, as you are vigorous in protecting the American people.”

Setting aside the usual rock star welcome,  President Obama’s remarks during his first visit to the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA offers still another extraordinary moment in the interplay between the presidency and public sector professionalism. Here’s an article in the Post and a transcript of the President’s remarks – and here’s the video from cspan.org.

Abraham Lincoln, candidate for U.S. president. Aug. 13, 1860 – Springfield, IL

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger administering the oath of office to Jimmy Carter on the east portico of U.S. Capitol, January 20, 1977. Photograph from Architect of the Capitol, AOC no. 43173. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

President Cleveland in reviewing stand, in front of the White House, during his inauguration, March 4, 1885. Cleveland is wearing a top hat, standing beneath flag-draped canopy of reviewing stand. Jarvis, J. F. b. 1850, (John F.), photographer. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., 20540 USA

I have already voiced some irritation at the proliferation of “czars” filling up the new administration – it’s a topic of much commentary around the web (here and here). The complaint is partially aesthetic (a czar?), but The Post today carries a piece summarizing the very real strategic risks. In areas like environmental and health policy, the Obama team recognizes the demand for constant White House attention in order to push presidential priorities through the tangle of agencies and interest groups.

Though, much to his credit, the president-elect seems willing and capable of managing an enormous amount of information, the “envoy” strategy also acknowledges the limitations on Obama’s time and attention. By appointing so many heavyweights and giving them proximity to the Oval Office, Obama signals his willingness to share power and some the limelight. It certainly looks like an attempt to learn from history, and I’m sure it is. Longtime observer Calvin Mackenzie rightly calls the extent to which Obama has used the strategy of formally assigning White House positions “unprecedented” in recent presidencies. But history also points to the risks. The Post quotes Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “We’re going to have so many czars…It’s going to be a lot of fun, seeing the czars and the regulators and the czars and the Cabinet secretaries debate.”

President Woodrow Wilson and Firstlady Edith Wilson riding to Wilson’s second inauguration. March 4, 1917. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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Who isn’t a little annoyed by the recent “czars” epidemic? Writing in Slate, Ben Zimmer (Visual Thesaurus) reaches back into the expression’s history.

Already Tom Daschle has been tapped for “health czar” and Carol Browner for “climate czar.” Adolfo Carrión is expected to be the “urban affairs czar.” There’s also been talk of a “technology czar” and a “copyright czar.” Plans for a “car czar” recently fell apart on Capitol Hill, but Obama and the incoming Congress will try, try again in the new year. This efflorescence of czars-those interagency point people charged with cutting through red tape to coordinate policy-has people wondering: Why do we use a term from imperial Russia to describe bureaucratic troubleshooters?

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FedBlog links to a Pew Research Center report on public opinion during the Bush administration. The graphic below illustrates Bush’s steadily declining popularity – a characteristic not only of this administration, but of what political scientists Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley (1992) term the “decay curve” in presidential popularity. With a handful of exceptions, presidents have suffered steadily declining support – particularly during their second terms as this graphic by political scientist Charles Franklin illustrates.

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Obama transition news continues at a brisk pace – filling up almost every news cycle over the last week (except those that occupied by Rod Blagojevich). Here are a bunch of highlights:

Public Citizen is tracking donors to the Obama Inaugural Committee with analysis on the transition blog Becoming 44.

John Kamensky discusses recent work by the Council for Excellence in Government on political appointees.

The AGA Weblog looks back at the Government Management Reform Act of 1994.

POGO on reform to a DoD acquisition systems.

OMB Watch on EPA’s recent fondness for Fridays.

Just how corrupt is Illinois?

Did lobbying help banks buy the bailout?

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