What Exactly Does a Government ‘Czar’ Do?

President Obama is expected to name a new Ebola czar. A look at his administration’s past crisis czars gives some indication of how that will work out.

Ron Klain and actor Kevin Spacey attend the HBO Films premiere of Recount on May 13, 2008 in New York City.
National Journal
Oct. 17, 2014, 7:16 a.m.

It sounds like something out of Anna Karen­ina. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is go­ing to name a “czar” to com­bat the spread of Ebola in the United States.

Pres­id­ent Obama will soon an­nounce the ap­point­ment of Ron Klain as his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “Ebola czar,” CNN re­por­ted Fri­day morn­ing. Klain has served as chief of staff to two vice pres­id­ents: Al Gore and Joe Biden. He also served un­der Biden in the 1990s, when Biden was chair of the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee. In 2000, Klain was gen­er­al coun­sel to Gore dur­ing the Flor­ida re­count — a role that Kev­in Spacey played in the movie Re­count.

Obama said Thursday night that ap­point­ing an Ebola czar would free up fed­er­al of­fi­cials who have been lead­ing the U.S. re­sponse to do­mest­ic Ebola cases, such as Dr. Tom Frieden, the dir­ect­or of the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. “They are also re­spons­ible for a whole bunch of oth­er stuff,” the pres­id­ent said, ac­cord­ing to pool re­ports. A point per­son for the Ebola re­sponse will “make sure we’re cross­ing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s,” Obama said.

So, what dif­fer­en­ti­ates a “czar” from any oth­er gov­ern­ment of­ficer? One dif­fer­ence is that he or she doesn’t al­ways have to be con­firmed by the Sen­ate, al­low­ing the White House to act quickly to put a lead­er in place in times of crisis. Here is a brief his­tory of some of the czars the U.S. gov­ern­ment has em­ployed dur­ing past crises, giv­ing a hint to what Klain may do, and how he may help or hurt the White House’s Ebola re­sponse ef­forts.

AIDS Czars

This spring, Obama tapped Douglas Brooks, an HIV-pos­it­ive health care policy act­iv­ist to be his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s AIDS czar. Brooks, who served most re­cently as a seni­or mem­ber of the Justice Re­source In­sti­tute in Bo­ston, had been liv­ing with the vir­us for more than two dec­ades.

Brooks is the latest in a string of AIDS czars since 1993, and the third to serve un­der Obama. The pre­vi­ous two were Jef­frey Crow­ley, who came to the ad­min­is­tra­tion from Geor­getown Uni­versity’s Health Policy In­sti­tute, and Grant Col­fax, who stepped down last year. The czars were re­spons­ible for over­see­ing edu­ca­tion ef­forts and help­ing to co­ordin­ate treat­ment for people liv­ing with the dis­ease, both in the U.S. and abroad.

After at least two oth­er can­did­ates turned the po­s­i­tion down, Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton ap­poin­ted the first AIDS czar in 1993. Kristine Gebbie, a nurse and Wash­ing­ton state health ad­min­is­trat­or who sat on Pres­id­ent Ron­ald Re­agan’s Pres­id­en­tial Com­mis­sion on AIDS, took on the role for only a year.

With Klain’s ap­point­ment, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is show­ing that it’s tak­ing the Ebola threat as ser­i­ously as AIDS. Frieden com­pared the spread of Ebola to the AIDS epi­dem­ic on Wed­nes­day. “In the 30 years I’ve been work­ing in pub­lic health, the only thing like this has been AIDS, and we have to work now so that this is not the world’s next AIDS,” he said. Many oth­ers who wit­nessed those “para­noid days” in the late 1980s have drawn sim­il­ar com­par­is­ons, even as politi­cians such as Sen. Rand Paul have sought to un­der­score the dif­fer­ences between Ebola and AIDS.

Drug Czars

One of the best-known czars is in­dubit­ably the drug czar. Gil Ker­likowske, who first came to the of­fice in 2009, stepped down last spring after a tu­mul­tu­ous ten­ure, and Mi­chael Bot­ti­celli, a re­cov­er­ing al­co­hol­ic who’s re­ceived ser­vice awards for pro­mot­ing re­cov­ery ad­dic­tion, was tapped to fill the po­s­i­tion.

Bill Piper, dir­ect­or of na­tion­al af­fairs for Drug Policy Al­li­ance, a pro-re­form group in Wash­ing­ton, told Na­tion­al Journ­al that Ker­likowske’s re­cord was mixed. “It’s in­ter­est­ing be­cause, tra­di­tion­ally, drug czars have been pro­pa­gand­ists for the fed­er­al war on drugs,” he said. Ker­likowske’s ten­ure in­stead signaled a turn­ing point.

The ap­point­ment of Bot­ti­celli as act­ing dir­ect­or of the White House Of­fice of Na­tion­al Drug Con­trol Policy un­der­scored a shift in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach to drug policy from em­phas­iz­ing law en­force­ment to em­phas­iz­ing treat­ment and re­cov­ery ser­vices. To put it bluntly: Ker­likowske came to the of­fice fresh off a gig as po­lice chief in Seattle, while Bot­ti­celli has been open about his struggles with ad­dic­tion.

Asi­an Carp Czar

In 2010, Obama named an Asi­an carp czar to com­bat the in­flux of the in­vas­ive fish in the Great Lakes. John Goss, the dir­ect­or of Asi­an carp for the White House Coun­cil on En­vir­on­ment­al Qual­ity, spear­heads the ef­fort to erad­ic­ate the spe­cies. Goss said last year that $50 mil­lion in fed­er­al funds would be al­loc­ated to pro­grams to mon­it­or and halt the fish’s spread in the Great Lakes, in­clud­ing the in­stall­a­tion of elec­tric dis­pers­al bar­ri­ers to dis­cour­age the fish from cross­ing in­to the lakes.

Car Czar

Steven Rattner, who was ap­poin­ted as as the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s car czar in Feb­ru­ary 2009, las­ted only six months on the job. “I hated it,” Rattner told ABC earli­er this year of the job title. “I wasn’t the czar of any­thing. I was just an­oth­er foot sol­dier try­ing to help dur­ing a very dark peri­od. But my pa­ternal grand­fath­er, whose fam­ily fled the czar, would have been amused.”

Rattner also wound up mak­ing things a bit awk­ward for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion: After his exit, he wrote a book on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s 2009 auto-in­dustry bail­out, de­tail­ing in­fight­ing and de­scrib­ing Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who “strode the halls like a mil­it­ary com­mand­er,” as mak­ing some off-col­or re­marks. Rattner says that at one point dur­ing the dark days of the auto in­dustry bail­out, Emanuel asked, “Why even save GM?”

Food Czar

It’s not Michelle Obama, des­pite her truly stel­lar “turn down for what” Vine video about turnips. In fact, you’ve prob­ably nev­er heard of the guy who cur­rently holds the title: Mi­chael Taylor any­one? He’s cur­rently the deputy com­mis­sion­er for foods.

One com­mon thread among pres­id­en­tial czars is that they are of­ten brought in dur­ing times of acute crisis — some tem­por­ary and oth­ers more per­man­ent. Hope­fully, des­pite the Ebola-AIDS com­par­is­on, Klain’s czar­dom will be a short-lived ap­point­ment — less like the AIDS czar and more like the quickly for­got­ten Y2K czar.

Marina Koren contributed to this article.
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