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 before 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 has 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."
At a recent congressional hearing, Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., lamented that Dennis Blair, the national intelligence director, doesn't have time to manage the extra responsibilities he has 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.
That's one of hundreds of seats still empty.
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. Obama is calling for sweeping changes in the way people get health care coverage.
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.