Help Wanted? Why Obama Doesn't Need a Jobs Czar

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Karen Bleier/ AFP / Getty Images

A jobs sign on the front of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building in Washington on Sept. 2, 2010

In 2009, Glenn Beck and various Republican politicians made a lot of noise about President Obama's alleged proliferation of "czars." There were AIDS czars and car czars and pay czars, oh my! Obama was creating more czars than the Romanovs! Except, of course, he wasn't.

The purported czars were mostly run-of-the-mill aides and advisers and envoys; there was no indication that they had any more power than aides or advisers or envoys in any previous Administration. Beck's czar list actually included two different climate czars, which should have been a hint that they weren't particularly czarlike in the Romanov sense. Sure enough, neither one of those supposedly omnipotent czars managed to get a climate bill through Congress.

Now a public figure much more thoughtful than Beck, not to mention much better-looking, has urged Obama to address America's most pressing problem by appointing a jobs czar. Did I mention that he's my boss? But even though I like my job, a jobs czar is not the solution to the unemployment problem. It's a solution in search of a problem. The Rhodes scholar who signs my checks is making the same mistake as the weepy professor on Fox: he's inflating the importance of org charts and understating the importance of public policy.

In fairness, the press makes this mistake every day. We obsess over personnel and the optics of personnel: William Daley is going to be chief of staff? Didn't he oppose financial reform? Is Obama sucking up to Wall Street? We're less interested in tracking financial reform. Former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel made more news when he left the White House than he made inside the White House, because policy tends to be duller than politics or personality. And while policy analysis can lead journalists into awkward ideological minefields — Is Obama making this mess worse? Or is he cleaning up President Bush's mess? — a call for a bureaucratic shake-up can feel nonpartisan.

But to understand why a jobs czar isn't the answer, it helps to ask: Why would it be the answer? Somehow the Clinton Administration managed to oversee the creation of 22 million jobs without a jobs czar, so it's obviously not a prerequisite. Somehow the Bush Administration's appointment of a post-Katrina reconstruction czar failed to produce much reconstruction, so it's obviously not a magic bullet. If White House czars really did enjoy the power that exists only in Beck's fevered imagination, a jobs czar would make perfect sense. Otherwise, what would be the point?

One answer might be: a jobs czar could send the message that job creation is President Obama's top priority. But you know who else could send that message? President Obama. Guess what? He just did. As a matter of fact, he sent the same message in January 2010. And in January 2009. And countless times in between. That message has been sent so often it's practically spam.

Apparently, though, it hasn't been received. So maybe a jobs czar could make sure the public gets the message. Pundits often complain that Obama doesn't seem "focused" enough on jobs, that he dilutes his job message by talking about health care and Afghanistan and Michael Vick. But that's life in the presidency. And Obama has plenty of advisers focusing exclusively on jobs and the economy. Here's Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner declaring that jobs are, yes, Obama's top priority. Here's Council of Economic Advisers head Austan Goolsbee using a cool whiteboard to talk about jobs and how the hemorrhaging that began under Bush has ended on Obama's watch. Larry Summers also talked a lot about jobs when he was head of the National Economic Council (NEC); when Gene Sperling replaces him — Didn't he work for Goldman Sachs? Is Obama still sucking up to Wall Street? — he'll talk a lot about jobs too. It's hard to see how a jobs czar would get the message to more Americans, unless the jobs czar were named Oprah. Otherwise, a jobs czar would be even easier to ignore than the usual propeller-heads. Of course he's talking about jobs. It's his job!

With so many economists in Obama's orbit, it's possible to imagine an argument for a jobs czar that doesn't rely on optics: maybe it's needed to unite a fractious team around a single jobs strategy. One would think that's the task of the President, his chief of staff and his NEC head, but there certainly have been strains within the economic team. Summers didn't always play nicely in the sandbox. Former budget director Peter Orszag made some enemies too.

But the team has been essentially united on its jobs strategy — and when tensions have emerged, it's hard to see how a jobs czar would have changed much. Steve Rattner's book about the auto bailout revealed a spat between Summers and Goolsbee about whether to save Chrysler, but Obama adjudicated the dispute before it became public. Orszag was somewhat more concerned than his colleagues about the deficit implications of the $787 billion stimulus bill, but the entire team agreed on the need for extremely aggressive stimulus to blast money into the economy and get people to work right away. When unemployment kept hovering near 10%, the team agreed on the need for additional stimulus but also on the political futility of getting a second massive package of tax cuts and spending hikes through Congress. So they settled for some modest state aid to prevent teacher layoffs, some tax relief for small businesses and several extensions of unemployment benefits. Would a jobs czar have extracted more?

As the boss pointed out, "There is a limit to what the federal government can do to create jobs." It can't wave a wand to restore consumer confidence, revive the private sector or reverse decades of overleveraging. And to the extent it can do something, there is no political consensus on what. The Obama team argues that its stimulus saved or created millions of jobs and helped prevent an even worse downturn, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office agrees. Some liberal critics who share the Administration's Keynesian assumptions think Obama should have insisted on an even bigger fiscal stimulus, nominated a Federal Reserve chairman even more favorable to monetary stimulus than Ben Bernanke and pushed for legislation to give bankruptcy judges the power to prevent foreclosures. Meanwhile, Republicans suggest that massive corporate and income tax cuts would have done more to juice the economy, or that Obama should have slashed spending, embraced austerity and tapped an inflation hawk to run the Fed.

In any case, it's hard to imagine what exactly a jobs czar would do. Vice President Biden is already overseeing the implementation of the stimulus, and he seems to be doing just fine. Sperling will now coordinate economic policy, and Obama's new press secretary will be in charge of the economic message. (Biden aide Jay Carney is on the short list? Has Obama decided to stop sucking up to Wall Street and start sucking up to us?) If the mission is highlighting the Administration's commitment to jobs, that's already been highlighted more than a sulky ninth-grader's copy of Catcher in the Rye. And if the mission is revamping America's approach to jobs, well, that won't happen until Obama leaves his.

Ultimately, bureaucratic shuffles affect the bureaucracy, not the economy. A jobs czar might change the power dynamics among people working at the White House — but not the power of the White House. Because the guy with the most power lives there too.