- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

President Obama doesn't have time for a victory lap now that his Cabinet is largely in place, finally.

One level down, he faces gaping holes in the ranks that he needs to fill if there is to be any hope of turning his ambitious agenda into action on health care, the environment and much more.

After a spurt of recent activity that followed a problem-plagued start, Mr. Obama is outpacing presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton on appointments. But Mr. Obama, like his two immediate predecessors, is bogged down in a system that has grown increasingly cumbersome over the years. And he's added tougher-than-ever background checks and ethics rules.

“Obama will be faster than Clinton and Bush when all is said and done, but it's still a slow process,” said New York University professor Paul Light, who studies the federal government. “A turtle is a turtle is a turtle. The Obama administration is a pretty fast turtle, but it's no hare.”

What's at stake is much more than bragging rights for how quickly Mr. Obama can fill in an organizational chart with names for undersecretary of this and deputy assistant secretary of that. These are the people Mr. Obama needs to carry out all sorts of promised initiatives and policy shifts - and to assure that the nation will stay safe along the way.

At a recent congressional hearing, for example, Rep. Sue Myrick, North Carolina Republican, lamented that Dennis C. Blair, the national intelligence director, doesn't have time to manage the extra responsibilities he's been given on economics and climate change.

“The ideal person for that is the principal deputy director of national intelligence,” suggested Edward Maguire, the agency's outgoing inspector general.

But that's one of hundreds of seats still empty. There are similar stories all across government.

NASA is awaiting a new administrator as the space agency approaches a big deadline about when to retire the space shuttle fleet. At the Health and Human Services Department, where Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius will be the last member of Mr. Obama's Cabinet to win confirmation by the Senate, 19 of the top 20 slots are being filled by acting career employees, and the 20th is empty.

This at a time when Mr. Obama is calling for sweeping changes in the way people get health care coverage. Four planned HHS nominations have been announced.

At the Interior Department, Mr. Obama has yet to name a replacement to lead the Minerals Management Service, central in plans to expand renewable energy production off the nation's coasts.

Mr. Obama also has not picked someone to head the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a quasi-government organization that insures the pensions of 44 million workers and retirees - critical when bankruptcies are mounting. The corporation is being run by an acting director from the civil service.

George Mason University professor James Pfiffner, a specialist in presidential appointments, said that while capable civil servants can keep the government functioning, no one expects them to “go off in a new direction” to carry out a new president's policies.

Mr. Light describes the situation as “neckless government,” representing the gap between the new Cabinet secretaries and the career employees.

“You really need the president's people in there to put the push on for action,” he said.

All told, Mr. Obama has about 500 appointments to make that are subject to Senate confirmation, and about 3,000 positions to fill overall, Mr. Light estimates.

By the White House's own count, Mr. Obama is outpacing his three predecessors at getting top-level appointees confirmed. But the numbers still are paltry, given all the vacancies to be filled. As of March 31, by an internal White House tally, Mr. Obama had 38 top-level officials confirmed, compared with 27 for President George W. Bush, 37 for President Bill Clinton, and 27 for President George H.W. Bush.

Considerably more names have been announced and are winding their way through the confirmation process.

“It's very clear that the Obama personnel operation has picked up speed,” Mr. Light said. “They're now loading the pipeline quite efficiently.”

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