Petey, We Hardly Knew Ye! Putting Orszag’s Tenure in Historical Context

And now, some fun with numbers! In response to my last post regarding Peter Orszag’s resignation as Obama’s OMB director – a resignation I speculated was driven by policy differences with other members of Obama’s administration – both Bob and Jonathan caution that this might instead simply be a case in which an aide resigns for purely personal reasons that have nothing to do with clashing policy views.  Jonathan notes that OMB directors typically have a short shelf life, a point that Jackie Calmes also made in the New York Times when she wrote about Orszag’s resignation: “Mr. Orszag, an economist who previously spent nearly two years as director of the Congressional Budget Office, somewhat reluctantly accepted Mr. Obama’s invitation to join the Cabinet after the 2008 election and never planned to stay more than two years. Typically, budget directors do not.”

Rather than taking Calmes word for it, I decided to look at the numbers. Do budget directors typically serve no more than two years?  And how does Orszag’s stint as OMB director compare to the average tenure of an OMB director?   (Note to those who don’t think I have better things to do than calculate the average time in office for an OMB director: I’m currently writing a book on the history of the OMB with Andy Rudalevige, and thought this data might actually be useful!)  Here’s a table listing all 38 individuals who have headed the BoB/OMB since its creation in 1921. The boldfaced names are those, like Orszag, who took office at the start of a president’s first term.

# Name Dates served President
38 Jacob Lew Nominated July 13, 2010 – Barack Obama
37 *Peter Orszag January 20, 2009 –July 30, 2010 Barack Obama
36 Jim Nussle September 4, 2007 – January 20, 2009 George W. Bush
35 Rob Portman May 26, 2006 – 19 June 2007 George W. Bush
34 Josh Bolten June 26, 2003 – April 15, 2006 George W. Bush
33 *Mitch Daniels January 23, 2001 – June 6, 2003 George W. Bush
32 Jacob Lew May 21, 1998 – January 19, 2001 Bill Clinton
31 Franklin Raines September 13, 1996 – May 21, 1998 Bill Clinton
30 Alice M. Rivlin October 17, 1994 – April 26, 1996 Bill Clinton
29 *Leon Panetta January 21, 1993 – October 1994 Bill Clinton
28 *Richard Darman January 25, 1989 – January 20, 1993 George H. W. Bush
27 Joseph R. Wright, Jr. October 16, 1988 – January 20, 1989 Ronald Reagan
26 James C. Miller III October 8, 1985 – October 15, 1988 Ronald Reagan
25 *David A. Stockman January 21, 1981 – August 1, 1985 Ronald Reagan
24 James T. McIntyre September 24, 1977 – January 20, 1981 Jimmy Carter
23 *Bert Lance January 21, 1977 – September 23, 1977 Jimmy Carter
22 James T. Lynn February 10, 1975 – January 20, 1977 Gerald Ford
21 Roy Ash February 2, 1973 – February 3, 1975 Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford
20 Caspar Weinberger June 12, 1972 – February 1, 1973 Richard Nixon
19 George P. Shultz July 1, 1970 – June 11, 1972 Richard Nixon
18 *Robert Mayo January 22, 1969 – June 30, 1970 Richard Nixon
17 Charles Zwick January 29, 1968 – January 21, 1969 Lyndon B. Johnson
16 Charles Schultze June 1, 1965 – January 28, 1968 Lyndon B. Johnson
15 Kermit Gordon December 28, 1962 – June 1, 1965 John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson
14 *David E. Bell January 22, 1961 – December 20, 1962 John F. Kennedy
13 Maurice H. Stans March 18, 1958 – January 21, 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower
12 Percival Brundage April 2, 1956 – March 17, 1958 Dwight D. Eisenhower
11 Rowland Hughes April 16, 1954 – April 1, 1956 Dwight D. Eisenhower
10 *Joseph Dodge January 22, 1953 – April 15, 1954 Dwight D. Eisenhower
9 Frederick Lawton April 13, 1950 – January 21, 1953 Harry S. Truman
8 Frank Pace February 1, 1949 – April 12, 1950 Harry S. Truman
7 James E. Webb July 13, 1946 – January 27, 1949 Harry S. Truman
6 Harold D. Smith April 15, 1939 – June 19, 1946 Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman
5 Daniel W. Bell September 1, 1934- April 14, 1939 Franklin D. Roosevelt
4 *Lewis W. Douglas March 7, 1933 – August 31, 1934 Franklin D. Roosevelt
3 J. Clawson Roop August 15, 1929 – March 3, 1933 Herbert Hoover
2 Herbert M. Lord July 1, 1922 – May 31, 1929 Warren G. Harding
1 Charles E. Dawes June 23, 1921 – June 30, 1922 Warren G. Harding

By my calculations, based on this data, Orszag left office after serving 556 days, or about 1.5 years. The average tenure of the other 37 BoB/OMB directors is 873 days, or about 2 years, 4 months.  So Orszag falls short of the average tenure by about 10 months. (All calculations based on data from the OMB website.)

If we order the 37 directors by time served, longest to shortest, we see that Orszag falls near the bottom of the rankings, at number 26.

Name President Tenure days
Jacob Lew Barack Obama .0
1. Harold D. Smith Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman 2622.00
2. Herbert M. Lord Warren G. Harding 2526.00
3. Daniel W. Bell Franklin D. Roosevelt 1686.00
4. *David A. Stockman Ronald Reagan 1653.00
5. *Richard Darman George H. W. Bush 1456.00
6. J. Clawson Roop Herbert Hoover 1296.00
7. James T. McIntyre Jimmy Carter 1214.00
8. James C. Miller III Ronald Reagan 1103.00
9. Maurice H. Stans Dwight D. Eisenhower 1040.00
10. Josh Bolten George W. Bush 1023.00
11.Frederick Lawton Harry S. Truman 1014.00
12. Jacob Lew Bill Clinton 974.00
13. Charles Schultze Lyndon B. Johnson 971.00
14. James E. Webb Harry S. Truman 929.00
15. Kermit Gordon John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson 886.00
16. *Mitch Daniels George W. Bush 864.00
17. Roy Ash Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford 731.00
18. Rowland Hughes Dwight D. Eisenhower 716.00
19. Percival Brundage Dwight D. Eisenhower 714.00
20. George P. Shultz Richard Nixon 711.00
21. James T. Lynn Gerald Ford 710.00
22. *David E. Bell John F. Kennedy 697.00
23. *Leon Panetta Bill Clinton 618.00
24. Franklin Raines Bill Clinton 615.00
25. Alice M. Rivlin Bill Clinton 557.00
26. *Peter Orszag Barack Obama 556.00
27. Lewis W. Douglas Franklin D. Roosevelt 542.00
28. *Robert Mayo Richard Nixon 524.00
29. Jim Nussle George W. Bush 485.00
30. *Joseph Dodge Dwight D. Eisenhower 448.00
31. Frank Pace Harry S. Truman 435.00
32. Rob Portman George W. Bush 389.00
33. Charles E. Dawes Warren G. Harding 372.00
34. Charles Zwick Lyndon B. Johnson 358.00
35. *Bert Lance Jimmy Carter 245.00
36. Caspar Weinberger Richard Nixon 234.00
37. Joseph R. Wright, Jr. Ronald Reagan 73.00

Of course, these averages are potentially misleading because they include all OMB directors, regardless of when they took the position.  For example, George W. Bush’s last OMB director, Jim Nussle, took office in September, 2007. He wasn’t going to serve longer than 15 months no matter what his policy views.  So perhaps the better comparison is between Orszag and the 10 other budget directors who took office at the start of a presidential administration.  It turns out that, as a group, they actually serve slightly less than average, at about 742 days, or about 2 years.  Among these 11, Orszag has the 4rth shortest tenure, just a few days longer than Robert Mayo’s under Nixon.

Keep in mind that there are extenuating circumstances underlying some of these individual’s short tenures. The shortest, at 8 months, was Bert Lance’s; he resigned under pressure due to allegations that he had committed financial improprieties while heading a bank in Georgia. The second shortest, at one year three months, is Joseph Dodge’s.  But Dodge moved on from the BoB to chair Eisenhower’s newly-created Council on Foreign Economic Policy in 1954.  Similarly, Leon Panetta left the OMB after only one year, 9 months as director to become Clinton’s chief of staff.   David Bell served just less than two years under Kennedy before taking a position as head of the Agency for International Development. Only Robert Mayo, Nixon’s BoB director, left government entirely (although he went to a branch of the Federal Reserve). In short, with the exception of Lance and Mayo, all the other directors who took office with the president and who served less than two years left for other positions within the same administration.  So not only did Orzsag not serve very long as director – he wasn’t promoted to another position within the administration.   His career trajectory, then, is unusual for BoB/OMB directors who come in with the President.

One might also object to this attempt to measure the average tenure because it includes the BoB directors who served prior to 1939, when the BoB was moved from the Treasury Department into the newly-created Executive Office of the President.  The pre-1939 directors operated in a decidedly different political context.  If we restrict our analysis to the post-1939 period, directors serve on average about 800 days, or a bit more than two years.  Note, however, that the average tenure has decreased since the start of the Clinton presidency; the nine budget directors serving since 1993 lasted, on average, only 675 days, or about one year, 10 months.  That’s dropping closer to Orszag’s time in office. This higher turnover took place, moreover, despite the fact that both Clinton and Bush served two full terms.

Why the relatively shorter tenures (I won’t even call it a trend)?  My guess – and it’s only a guess – is that it has something to do with the increased competition the OMB director faces from other presidential advisers.  At one time, the BoB/OMB director was the primary staff source of budgetary advice to the president.  But that primacy has been challenged, beginning with the establishment of the CEA (Council of Economics Advisers) in 1946 and, most importantly, the creation in 1993 of the National Economic Council (NEC), headed by a White House-based economic adviser with her own White House staff.  The person occupying the NEC position (currently Larry Summers) has by virtue of proximity to the President a golden opportunity to shape economic policy.  Moreover, this White House economic adviser is, unlike the OMB director, not burdened by any institutional loyalties and thus can focus solely on serving the President’s interests.  Historically, BoB/OMB directors must be, at least in part, focused on holding down government spending – this is part of the OMB portfolio.   The NEC adviser is not burdened by any institutional expectations.

This is all speculation based on back-of-the-envelope calculations more fitting for a blog post than for an academic journal.  But that’s why I blog – it’s a chance to try out new ideas (and see you shoot them down!).

What have we learned from this little historical excursion?  The bottom line: we can’t be sure why Orszag resigned.  But his tenure was unusually short by historical standards – although not that short when compared to the time served by more recent directors.  That is consistent with, but doesn’t come close to proving, a story in which Orszag – like many recent OMB directors  – found his influence circumscribed and decided to step down.   On the other hand, the data may signal nothing at all beyond the fact that each director has his own story to tell, and that no two stories are alike!

Isn’t political science fun?

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