Czar Talk

CZAR TALK…. When President Obama’s most over-the-top detractors attack him as a “dictator” or having “authoritarian” ambitions, the evidence is illusory. They’ll point to imaginary “civilian security forces” or insane FEMA “camps” for conservatives. The talk is just an elaborate paranoid fantasy from right-wing activists looking for excuses to rationalize blind hatred.

But then there are those pesky “czars.”

On his Fox News show today, Glenn Beck featured one of his patented spooky-music video packages, this time fearmongering about the Obama administration’s “czars.” “He has 37 czars to oversee and advise him directly,” said Beck. “Never before have there been so many executive posts that were not confirmed by Congress and who answered only to the president.”

Unlike most of the unhinged accusations, this one at least has the kernel of truth — there are “czars” in the Obama administration. (There were also “czars” in the Bush and Clinton administrations, but those apparently don’t count.) And because these “czars” exist, they’ve become quite a contentious point for many conservatives and their congressional allies.

It’s the details that Beck and his followers either don’t understand or pretend not to notice.

For one thing, they keep insisting Obama has done something unprecedented. He hasn’t. During the Bush/Cheney years, the White House created new czars for almost every conceivable policy challenge. In the span of about six years, Bush oversaw the creation of a “food safety czar,” a “cybersecurity czar,” a “regulatory czar,” an “AIDS czar,” a “manufacturing czar,” an “intelligence czar,” a “bird-flu czar,” and a “Katrina czar.” It was such a common strategy for Bush that it quickly became the butt of jokes. Newsweek satirist Andy Borowitz suggested in 2007 that the White House needed a “lying czar” to “oversee all distortions and misrepresentations.”

There is, as far as I can tell, no evidence of Beck or his allies criticizing Bush’s proliferation of “czars,” or equating the trend with authoritarian tendencies. If there was some consistency to their thinking — a tall order, to be sure — it’d be easier to take their whining seriously.

For another, Beck and other far-right Republicans continue to say these “czars” are “not confirmed by Congress” and answer “only to the president.” In Grown-Up Land, that’s wrong — many of the “czars” at issue here were vetted by Congress and subjected to Senate confirmation.

Moreover, some of these “czars” only deserve the title in the most colloquial sense. In the State Department, for example, the administration has an official who works full time on shaping a policy on the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. This hardly sounds outrageous, but the job is usually referred to as the “Guantanamo closure czar.”

Beck has also argued that Obama has more “czars” than his predecessors. That’s largely true. But let’s also remember that some of these new “czars” only exist because they’re working in response to new efforts and/or challenges. Previous administrations didn’t need a “TARP czar” before, because TARP didn’t exist. The “stimulus accountability czar” wasn’t needed before there was a stimulus. The “car czar” wasn’t needed before the collapse of the American auto industry. These are temporary gigs, not a new, permanent layer of bureaucracy.

And when it comes to Beck’s segment yesterday in particular, Matt Corley noted that the argument included “czars” that are part of Congress, not the Obama administration. Beck also showed a photo collage of the “czars” that included one guy twice, presumably to make the collage look bigger.

Something to keep in mind the next time this is used as “proof” of the president being “dangerous.”