Obama's White House: Big posts, overlapping tasks

By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is building a White House staff so loaded with big names and overlapping duties that it could collapse into chaos unless managed with a juggler's skill.

It's an administration that seems "addicted to czars," says one longtime observer of government organization.

Obama has installed a White House health czar who doubles as secretary of Health and Human Services. The State Department now has "special envoys" for the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and for climate change - areas already overseen by other officials.

Just for the environment, along with the new climate envoy Obama has an energy secretary, an Environmental Protection Agency director and a chief of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Hovering over them all is Carol Browner, a high-profile former EPA administrator in a newly created role some call "climate czarina."

The economic team is perhaps the most multilayered and ego-driven of all. Former college professor Christina Romer heads Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. Timothy Geithner, a former top Federal Reserve official, is treasury secretary. Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker is heading the newly formed Economic Recovery Advisory Board. And Peter Orszag, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, is the budget director.

Coordinating and perhaps overshadowing all of them is Lawrence Summers, the brainy and sometimes abrasive former Harvard University president and treasury secretary who directs Obama's National Economic Council.

The White House elevated the council's importance last week, announcing that Summers will brief Obama on the economy each morning, similar to the president's daily national security briefing.

Obama also has three powerful senior advisers in the West Wing with him. And still other top aides fill familiar roles such as chief of staff, domestic policy adviser and national security adviser.

Known for their intellect and experience, these appointees could become rivals or advocates of competing ideas that could hinder White House operations if not skillfully managed and coordinated.

Administration officials will have to "watch and see when it starts to become dysfunctional," said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who has held several top government jobs going back to 1959. "It's a very high risk because you're adding without subtracting."

When naming Volcker to his team, Obama could have scrapped either Romer's or Summers' agency, and divided the advisory duties between two groups, Hess said. "Instead, he adds a third."

Paul Light, a specialist on government organization at New York University, said, "They're kind of addicted to czars right now. I think they're more trouble than they're worth."

Obama obviously disagrees. He has signaled plans to name Bronx politician Adolfo Carrion Jr. to a new White House post coordinating urban housing and education policies. And he has named Nancy Killefer to the new job of "chief performance officer," which oversees many agencies.

Obama is hardly the first president to have a close aide coordinating several agencies. For years, a White House-based national security adviser has tried to put together information from the military, State Department and intelligence agencies.

But Obama's creation of new policy czars and special envoys is pushing White House centralization to new levels.

Some government veterans say the strategy can help a president shape policy with minimum interference from Cabinet agencies. Under the right circumstances, a White House czar "can cut through some of the interagency disagreements that slow down and clog the policymaking process," said Bill Galston, a University of Maryland professor and former Clinton White House aide.

But the system can be cumbersome, rife with jealousies and hampered by conflicting efforts and messages, Galston said. To make it work, he said, Obama "will have to be a way-above-average president," which he has the "intellect and temperament" to be.

Joel Johnson, a lobbyist who was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, said a czar system can make sense for tough issues needing the highest attention. At the same time, he said, Summers, Browner and health czar Tom Daschle "are very big feet to be walking around in the White House, and that's going to be a challenge to manage."

The task, he said, will fall mainly to Rahm Emanuel, Obama's fiery and savvy chief of staff. Emanuel's job is to resolve internal disputes before they reach the Oval Office so the president can stay focused on big goals, not problems of process.

"The huge advantage that this team has," Johnson said, is that many key players served in the Clinton White House. "Everyone knows the potential pitfalls and turf issues," he said. "To make it work, people will have to respect certain lines and boundaries."

Even a skilled chief of staff cannot always protect a president from brilliant but quarreling advisers, said Hess, of Brookings. In "What Do We Do Now?" his book of advice for Obama, Hess recalls President Richard Nixon naming two Ivy League professors, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Arthur Burns, as senior domestic policy aides. The two clashed for months, especially over welfare policy, forcing a long, frustrating delay in unrolling Nixon's domestic agenda.

Nixon paid a heavy price, Hess writes, "for his inattention to process." The same thing could happen to Obama, he says.

"He thinks he can be on top of all of this," Hess said in an interview, "but he will see that it may not work out that way."

Already, some lawmakers are questioning Obama's top-heavy, overlapping structure.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., balked at a quick Senate confirmation of Lisa Jackson to head the EPA because of uncertainty about Browner's role, about who answers to whom.

Barrasso "wants to know what the process is, how she will interact with Ms. Jackson," said the senator's spokesman, Greg Keeley. "No one seems to be able to answer that question."

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