WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama doesn't have time for a victory lap now that his Cabinet is finally largely in place.
One level down, he faces gaping holes in the ranks he needs to fill if there is to be any hope of turning his ambitious agenda into action on health care, the environment and much more.
After a spurt of recent activity that followed a problem-plagued start, Obama is outpacing George W. Bush and Bill Clinton on appointments. But Obama, like his two immediate predecessors, is bogged down in a system that has grown increasingly cumbersome over the years. And he's added tougher-than-ever background checks and ethics rules.
"Obama will be faster than Clinton and Bush when all is said and done, but it's still a slow process," said New York University professor Paul Light, an expert on the federal government. "A turtle is a turtle is a turtle. The Obama administration is a pretty fast turtle, but it's no hare."
What's at stake is much more than bragging rights for how quickly Obama can fill in an organizational chart with names for undersecretary of this and deputy assistant secretary of that. These are the people Obama needs to carry out all sorts of promised initiatives and policy shifts, and to assure that the nation stays safe along the way.
At a recent congressional hearing, for example, Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., lamented that Dennis Blair, the national intelligence director, doesn't have time to manage the extra responsibilities he's been given on economics and climate change.
"The ideal person for that is the principal deputy director of national intelligence," suggested Edward Maguire, the agency's outgoing inspector general.
But that's one of hundreds of seats still empty. There are similar stories all across government.
NASA is awaiting a new administrator as the space agency approaches a big deadline about when to retire the space shuttle fleet. At the Health and Human Services Department, where Kathleen Sebelius will be the last member of Obama's Cabinet to win confirmation by the Senate, 19 of the top 20 slots are being filled by acting career employees and the 20th is empty. This at a time when Obama is calling for sweeping changes in the way people get health care coverage. Four planned HHS nominations have been announced.
At the Interior Department, Obama has yet to name a replacement to lead the Minerals Management Service, central in plans to expand renewable energy production off the nation's coasts.
Obama also has not picked someone to head the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a quasi-government outfit that insures the pensions of 44 million workers and retirees — critical when bankruptcies are mounting. The corporation is being run by an acting director from the civil service.
George Mason University professor James Pfiffner, an expert on presidential appointments, said that while capable civil servants can keep the government functioning, no one expects them to "go off in a new direction" to carry out a new president's policies.
Light describes it as a "neckless government," representing the gap between the new Cabinet secretaries and the career employees.
"You really need the president's people in there to put the push on for action," he said.
All told, Obama has about 500 appointments to make that are subject to Senate confirmation, and about 3,000 positions to fill overall, Light estimates.
By the White House's own count, Obama is outpacing his three predecessors at getting top-level appointees confirmed. But the numbers still are paltry, given all the vacancies to be filled. As of March 31, by an internal White House tally, Obama had 38 top-level officials confirmed, compared with 27 for George W. Bush, 37 for Clinton, and 27 for George H.W. Bush.
Considerably more names have been announced and are winding their way through the confirmation process.
"It's very clear that the Obama personnel operation has picked up speed," Light said. "They're now loading the pipeline quite efficiently."
That shifts the logjam down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Senate, which must confirm top-level appointees. Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said most of the dozens of names awaiting confirmation didn't arrive until mid-March, and that action now "hinges on Republicans agreeing to move these nominees."
And Congress' two-week spring break will put action on hold temporarily until at least late April.
Terry Sullivan, executive director of the White House Transition Project, said Obama appears to be on track to get 100 appointments confirmed in his first 100 days, a modern benchmark recommended by some. But he said that still means "the government is mostly empty desks for the first year," which makes it hard to push an ambitious agenda.
Obama himself has bemoaned the "onerous" appointments process, taking note in particular of early trouble filling critical spots at the Treasury Department, where several potential nominees backed out after their names were announced.
"A lot of people who we think are about to serve in the administration and Treasury suddenly say, 'Well, you know what? I don't want to go through some of the scrutiny, embarrassment, in addition to taking huge cuts in pay,'" Obama told CBS' "60 Minutes" late last month.
Obama added to the hurdles by imposing tougher ethics rules and by increasing scrutiny of nominees' taxes after revelations that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had failed to pay $34,000 in payroll taxes and that former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Obama's first pick for health secretary, owed $140,000 in back income taxes and interest.
Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a think tank, said Obama was setting "Mother Teresa standards in a city with very few saints."
West called the number of appointees in place "dangerously low given the enormity of the challenges we face. Obama is holding his people to such a high standard it is wounding his administration."