Mr. Trump takes on the Plum Book

More than a week has passed since the election and we still don’t know much about what the Donald Trump administration will look like. While the whole effort seems stuck in neutral, in truth the initial appointments typically take a while.

When earlier presidents came in, they were products of their respective parties’ normal processes. They’d been governors or legislators, and they had the long-held ambition for the Oval Office. They’d developed networks of people ready to tap for cabinet and other policy jobs. Many people in the ecosystem of think tanks, good-government groups, contractors and the press are wondering when we’ll get an idea of who will be CIO of this, assistant secretary of that, and administrator of the other.

It’s true Hillary Clinton was nominated to Secretary of State by mid-November 2008. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s nomination didn’t come until mid-December, the same day as Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius didn’t accept until February, more than a month after the inauguration.

Still, I’m getting the sense that Trump may be the dog that caught the car. His network, so far as it’s discernible from a distance, doesn’t seem to include the camp followers, up-and-comers, suave insiders and lesser political potentates that operated in past administrations. So the question becomes whether he has the advisors that can branch out and find the needed people.

Judging from the election outcome, it looks like Hillary Clinton, with her detailed, wonky proposals, knew how to do government, but Trump, with his breezy, unconventional approach,  knew  how to appeal to the people for whom government is at once boring and menacing.

Large businesses with lots of problems occasionally get CEOs out of left field. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In the 1990s, a guy named Albert Dunlap, aka Chainsaw Al, was recruited to run several companies in turn — Scott Paper and Sunbeam among the best known. He seemed to produce near miraculous results by slashing staffs, cutting costs and making bold acquisitions — all while apparently boosting sales. Eventually, he was exposed as a serial accounting fraud and was eventually banned by the SEC from ever working for a public company. Several of his companies didn’t last.

When serial CEO Lou Gerstner Jr., then a McKinsey consultant, took over a failing IBM in 1993, he was an unconventional choice. I loved it when he said — and was widely quoted to the horror of conventional business gurus — “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” The company turned around and remains an important, if very different, company.

What kind of non-traditional president will Trump be? A lot depends on who he appoints. No revelation there. Trouble is, the fledgling administration seems to have trouble engaging in first gear and letting clutch out.

Numerous names from Congress and business float around the various cabinet secretary jobs. But a full roster of patronage jobs includes something like 1,300 Senate-confirmed, 1,000 non-confirmed executives of various sorts, and 1,500 Schedule C people. Plus another 360-odd appointees like small agency heads. Clearly, that won’t happen in two months. In fact, never at any time in any administration are all of these jobs actually filled.

Among these 4,000 “plum book” positions are the people who will set or carry out policy in your agency. They work at the level where so much on-the-ground business of government gets done —along with the career executives. As the National Academy of Public Administration points out, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded tens of millions of troops to liberate Europe in the greatest military campaign in history, was unsure of just how many people he could appoint and where once be became President.

Dopey appointments can either sap momentum before inauguration or distract an administration when new. Bill Clinton had a couple of nomination fiascos like Lani Guinier, perhaps a fine professor but too much even for many Clinton supporters. Jimmy Carter was embarrassed by Bert Lance, who made it to OMB director. (Lance was eventually acquitted of charges relating to his banking career.) George W. Bush inexplicably appointed Harriet Miers, White House counsel and former Texas Lottery Commission chair, to the Supreme Court. That one lasted about a week.

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