Wish Upon a Czar

When it comes to food safety and public health, it's been a rough spring. Just over the last several weeks, highly publicized E. coli outbreaks, poisoned pet food, and other bacterial contaminations have undermined the public's confidence in the monitoring of the nation's food supply. Worse, these problems have led to the deaths of three people and possibly hundreds of pets, and many more illnesses.

President Bush, however, has a plan. He could, of course, endorse stronger federal regulations, or perhaps commit to improving a flailing Food and Drug Administration that, by its own admission, has known about domestic contamination problems for a while now but insists it's too overwhelmed to act. But the president prefers a different tack: He has appointed a new "food safety czar."

Last week, the administration announced that Dr. David W.K. Acheson, who had been the chief medical officer at the FDA's food safety center, would immediately assume the responsibilities of the newly-created position. Acheson vowed to quickly evaluate how the FDA identifies at-risk food products for closer inspection. "We're in the process of re-examining that whole scenario," he said.

In isolation, this announcement may help reassure those Americans who eat food. But the decision fits into a familiar and not-so-distinguished pattern for the Bush administration. First: A public policy controversy erupts, usually as the result of administration incompetence, hackery, or both. Second: The public demands swift action to address the concern. Third: The president creates a new "czar."

Invariably, this White House response turns out to have rather little to do with addressing the problem and almost everything to do with public relations. It's reminiscent of the episode of "The Simpsons" in which Springfield Mayor Joe Quimby, confronted with a local crisis, announced the creation of a "blue-ribbon commission." One character responded earnestly, "Did he say a blue-ribbon commission?" -- prompting another to say, "Well, you can't do any better than that!"

Instead of a useless committee, with his constant stream of new policy "czars" the president creates managerial positions of dubious utility. Bush, after all, already has a massive federal bureaucracy, with agencies and officials in place to address policy problems. But as our MBA President sees it, when those officials fail, there's no reason to replace them with someone better or rethink a policy approach -- it simply means it's time to add a new layer of upper management. It gives the appearance of progress without actually having to achieve any results.

When it comes to monitoring the food supply, the Bush administration already relies on the FDA and the Department of Agriculture. As recent controversies have helped demonstrate, both have been ineffective of late. Of course, to follow the White House's reasoning, the problem isn't outdated models for food safety, but rather, the lack of a czar to oversee those outdated models for food safety.

It's a familiar tactic with this crew:

  • In 2001, with escalating concerns about possible attacks on our information technology infrastructure, Bush named a "cybersecurity czar."
  • In 2003, the president's desire to help his corporate benefactors led to the creation of a "regulatory czar" at the Office of Management and Budget. Around the same time, Bush named his first "AIDS Czar." (He didn't choose wisely -- Bush tapped Randall Tobias, the administration's former top advocate of global abstinence-only policies, who was recently forced to resign after procuring "massages" from a controversial Washington escort service.)
  • In 2004, faced with growing discontent over the nation's struggling manufacturing industries, Bush appointed a "manufacturing czar." (He chose the chief executive of a Nebraska company that had laid off manufacturing employees and built factories in China.)
  • 2005 was a banner year for czars. In February, Bush responded to revelations about failed national security intelligence by creating an "intelligence czar." Shortly thereafter, we had a "bird-flu czar." A few months after that, following the tragically botched handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina, there was a "Katrina czar."

It's become a common enough strategy to become the butt of jokes. Newsweek satirist Andy Borowitz recently suggested that the White House needs a "lying czar" to "oversee all distortions and misrepresentations."

Perhaps the most startling -- and revealing -- position on the White House's wish list is the creation of a "war czar," a position which reportedly would be responsible for coordinating intelligence and military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. (As The Daily Show's Jon Stewart recently joked, "So there you have it folks -- five years into the global war on terror, the president believes it is now time for someone to be in charge of it.")

The fact that the administration would even admit to desiring such a position defies comprehension. The federal government already has a Defense Secretary, Secretary of State, and National Security Agency. Indeed, Bush already employs National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley, whose job sounds eerily similar to that of the unfilled "war czar" position.

It all begins to resemble rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. When it comes to food safety, having an FDA commissioner isn't enough; we also need a "food-safety czar." Faced with the threat of an avian-flu outbreak, having a director of the Center for Disease Control isn't enough; we also need a "bird-flu czar." When it comes to losing manufacturing jobs, having a Secretary of Labor isn't enough; we also need a "manufacturing czar." The underlying problems remain the same, and the president's policies are unchanged, but now there are additional managers in place -- so the public is supposed to feel better.

As it turns out, the administration appears to have gone to the well one too many times. At least three retired four-star generals have been approached by the White House about the "war czar" job, and all declined -- including retired Army General Jack Keane, who directly helped shape the president's current policy in Iraq. "The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going," said retired Marine General John J. "Jack" Sheehan, a former top NATO commander who was approached about the position.

Given the number of "czar" titles created by the White House, it's a quote with broad applicability.