Over some 300 years, Russia was ruled by a total of 18 czars of the Romanov dynasty. However, as David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy points out, the Obama administration has now appointed more czars than that in just three months:
It has finally happened. With yesterday's naming of Border Czar Alan Bersin, the Obama administration has by any reasonable reckoning passed the Romanov Dynasty in the production of czars. The Romanovs ruled Russia from 1613 with the ascension of Michael I through the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in 1917. During that time, they produced 18 czars. While it is harder to exactly count the number of Obama administration czars, with yesterday's appointment it seems fair to say it is now certainly in excess of 18.
In addition to Bersin, we have energy czar Carol Browner, urban czar Adolfo Carrion, Jr., infotech czar Vivek Kundra, faith-based czar Joshua DuBois, health reform czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, new TARP czar Herb Allison, stimulus accountability czar Earl Devaney, non-proliferation czar Gary Samore, terrorism czar John Brennan, regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, and Guantanamo closure czar Daniel Fried. We also have a host of special envoys that fall into the czar category including AfPak special envoy Richard Holbrooke, Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell, special advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia Dennis Ross, Sudan special envoy J. Scott Gration and climate special envoy Todd Stern. That's 18.
This is a very conservative estimate, however. I will allow you to pick whom you would like out of the remaining candidates. For example you could count de facto car czar Steve Rattner even though the administration went out of its way to say they weren't going to have a car czar... before he ultimately emerged as the car czar . . .
But you certainly might want to count people deemed by the media to be the "cyber security czar" or the "AIDs czar" or the "green jobs czar" even if there are reasons to quibble about the designation of one or two of them.
Government by czar didn't work especially well in Russia. Hopefully, it won't be quite so bad in this country. And, yes, of course I understand that Obama's czars unlike the Romanovs are ultimately accountable to democratically elected officials. I also don't expect Obama's czars to be organizing pogroms or exiling dissidents to Siberia anytime soon. On the other hand, democratic accountability for America's czars is increasingly tenuous in light of the fact that there are too many of them for most voters to even keep straight, much less understand and evaluate their performance in any depth. Here, as elsewhere, the rapidly growing size and complexity of government makes difficult for voters to monitor those who are supposed to be serving the public . Maybe Obama's army of czars will do a good job anyway. A few of the Romanovs did. But for every "Czar-Liberator," like Alexander II (who free Russia's millions of serfs), there were a lot more oppressors and incompetents.
For what it's worth, I also recognize that it was the Republican Reagan administration that appointed the first American "czar" when they named a "drug czar" in 1982. Reagan was wrong to do so. That, however, in no way justifies the Obama Administration's massive expansion of this dubious practice.
UPDATE: Some commenters seem to be missing the point of the post; it's possible I wasn't sufficiently clear. So let me reiterate: No, I am not saying that Obama's czars are brutal oppressors like most of the Romanov czars were. I thought that was clear in the original post, where I said that "I also don't expect Obama's czars to be organizing pogroms or exiling dissidents to Siberia anytime soon." But let me be even more precise about it here to eliminate any remaining confusion. Nor am I saying that Cass Sunstein is somehow closely analogous to Nicholas II. I am, however, saying that the proliferation of czars makes an already excessively large and complex government even more difficult for rationally ignorant voters to monitor. And I doubt that there is any gain in efficiency to offset this harmful effect.