Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer

What’s the deal with the czars in America’s political scene?

Roosevelr czar politocal cartoon

President Barack Obama wasn't the first to dub special appointees as "czars" – a 1942 cartoon pokes fun at President Franklin D. Roosevelt's czars.

Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress

President Barack Obama’s appointment of Ron Klain as the White House Ebola czar last week adds to the list of special presidential appointees that includes a cyber czar, a car czar, even an Asian carp czar – assigned to fight against invasive fish.

While critics have slammed what they say is Obama’s overuse of “czars,” he is far from the first U.S. leader to have them.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had at least 11 czars focusing on everything from food to prices and production. He even had a rubber czar.

President George W. Bush had at least 33 czars, including special appointees for bird flu, bioethics and birth control.

How did a word once reserved for Slavic dictators come to mean a guardian of important American matters?

“Imported from elsewhere in its quaint ancient package of velvet and steel, it sounds to our ears almost like a magical being, a wizard or a djin,” Kathryn Schulz wrote in her NYmag.com column Friday.

And czars aren’t limited to the White House. In 2009, dozens of cities and states created czars to deal with spending of federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Earlier this year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed his second film czar to keep the movie-making business in the city.

The United Kingdom has them, too – the title’s just spelled differently. Prime Minister David Cameron has appointed tsars of enterprise, families and social mobility.

Back home, the number of actual Obama czars varies widely depending on who is counting. In 2009, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tweeted that "Obama has more czars than the Romanovs – who ruled Russia for 3 centuries. Romanovs 18, cyberczar makes 20."

The fact-checking website PolitiFact confirmed McCain’s tweet to be true. Five years later, the czar chart has gotten longer.

In June, PolitiFact took on the popular estimate of 45 Obama czars and concluded that “perhaps two dozen Obama administration officials have been genuinely referred to as czars.”

Some special appointees, such as Herbert Allison, the Obama administration’s bailout or TARP czar, also were confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Some of the appointments, while never officially dubbed “czars” by the White House itself, got the label from the media.

“ ‘WMD Czar’ is a lot more manageable in a headline than ‘Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism,’ ” Schulz wrote.

Jennifer LaFleur can be reached at jlafleur@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @j_la28.