The Merit and Reputation of an Administration: Presidential Appointees on the Appointments Process

Light, P.C. & Thomas, V.L.
Presidential Appointee Initiative, The Brookings Institution

American government was designed to be led by citizens who would step out of private life to serve their nation, then return to their communities enriched by that service and ready to recruit the next generation of citizen servants. The Founding Fathers understood that the quality of a president’s appointments was as important to the public’s confidence in government as the laws that its elected leaders would enact. “There is nothing I am so anxious about as good nominations,” Thomas Jefferson wrote at the dawn of his presidency in 1801, “conscious that the merit as well as reputation of an administration depends as much on that as on its measures.” Two hundred years later, the Founders’ model of presidential service is near the breaking point. Not only is the path into presidential service getting longer and more tortuous, it leads to ever- more stressful jobs. Those who survive the appointments process often enter office frustrated and fatigued, in part because they get little or no help, and in part because the process has increasingly become a source of confusion and embarrassment. The evidence comes from a survey conducted for the Presidential Appointee Initiative, which is a project of the Brookings Institution funded by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The telephone survey of 435 senior-level appointees who served in the second Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations was co sponsored by the Brookings Institution and Heritage Foundation, and was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates between December 1999 and February 2000.

Wagner Faculty