A president not only has the daunting job of dealing with 535 members in the two houses of Congress, each of whom has a separate base of power; he must appoint the 650 top positions in the executive branch. And these officials in turn choose about 2500 other appointees—for more than 3000 political appointments in all. Every decision is politically important, for there are more people who want key jobs than there are jobs to fill, and applicants inevitably believe they’re more deserving than anyone else. In the 18th century, Louis XIV complained, “Every time I bestow a vacant office I make a hundred discontented persons and one ingrate.” Things haven’t changed much since.
Political appointees are critical to a president’s ability to accomplish his agenda. Most of what happens in the federal government’s far-flung operations—from rescuing boaters in trouble to putting out fires in the national forests—is under the control of managers throughout the government. The president and his advisers can, at best, focus on only a handful of issues at a time, and they cannot direct detailed operations in any area without neglecting most of the others. To keep government policy consistent, therefore, the president has to rely on his appointees.
The very forces that make these appointees so important to the president’s agenda, however, make them hard to control. Presidential expert Richard Neustadt told Clinton’s advisers during the 1992 campaign that if Clinton won, he needed to put his appointees into place quickly. But he noted that, no matter what the incoming administration might do, “In time they all go native anyhow.”
Bush was determined to slow the loss of control over his appointees. Given the complexity of the president’s job and the appointees’ inevitable slide toward autonomy, that was a tall order. But the administration used money left over from the transition to try an innovative strategy—a Web site specifically tailored for presidential appointees, www.results.gov. Clay Johnson, presidential personnel director, said that the Web site “allows us to stay in the orientation and team-building business”—to continue the process of training members of the presidential team and, the administration hoped, to help appointees become more effective.
As Bush said on his Web site, “We’re all here to make a difference—a big difference—to tackle big issues like creating economic security for all Americans, protecting the homeland, and strengthening our national defenses. Another issue that is critical to the success of this administration is the implementation of my management agenda. We’re interested in results, and to be effective, we have to work together and learn from each other. This site will help us do that.”
The site warns appointees, for example, about the dangers of “Potomac Fever,” a dangerous disease characterized by “extreme disorientation, memory loss, and occasional delusions of grandeur.” Words like “paradigm and synergy” creep into the speech of those afflicted with the disease. Other symptoms include a sense that “words like million and billion no longer seem so large,” and a belief that the individual could be “effective if only OMB [the president’s budget office] would loosen up on the budget strings.” Those afflicted “may forget who appointed them to their position”—and “that they serve at the pleasure of the president.” The site included handy tips on surviving Washington without becoming captured by it, and an introduction to legislative affairs (“Accept the fact that Congress is there, was there long before you got to where you are, and will be there long after you leave”).
There was never a chance that the Web site would eradicate Potomac Fever or prevent the president’s appointees from “going native.” But by reemphasizing the president’s message—and reminding appointees that they were members of the president’s team—the president’s advisers hoped to stop the disease’s spread and promote more cohesion among the thousands of appointees.