WASHINGTON — As President Obama tries to turn around a summer of setbacks, he finds himself still without most of his own team. Seven months into his presidency, fewer than half of his top appointees are in place advancing his agenda.
Of more than 500 senior policymaking positions requiring Senate confirmation, just 43 percent have been filled — a reflection of a White House that grew more cautious after several nominations blew up last spring, a Senate that is intensively investigating nominees and a legislative agenda that has consumed both.
While career employees or holdovers fill many posts on a temporary basis, Mr. Obama does not have his own people enacting programs central to his mission. He is trying to fix the financial markets but does not have an assistant treasury secretary for financial markets. He is spending more money on transportation than anyone since Dwight D. Eisenhower but does not have his own inspector general watching how the dollars are used. He is fighting two wars but does not have an Army secretary.
He sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Africa to talk about international development but does not have anyone running the Agency for International Development. He has invited major powers to a summit on nuclear nonproliferation but does not have an assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation.
“If you’re running G.M. without half your senior executives in place, are you worried? I’d say your stockholders would be going nuts,” said Terry Sullivan, a professor at the University of North Carolina and executive director of the White House Transition Project, a scholarly program that tracks appointments. “The notion of the American will — it’s not being thwarted, but it’s slow to come to fruition.”
Mrs. Clinton expressed the exasperation of many in the administration last month when she was asked by A.I.D. employees why they did not have a chief. “The clearance and vetting process is a nightmare,” she told them. “And it takes far longer than any of us would want to see. It is frustrating beyond words.”
The process of assembling a new administration has frustrated presidents for years, a point brought home when George W. Bush received the now-famous memorandum titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike U.S.” eight years ago this month but still did not have most of his national security team in place when planes smashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
All parties vowed to fix the process, and Mr. Obama has a more intact national security team than his predecessor at this point. But even in this area, vital offices remain open. No Obama appointee is running the Transportation Security Administration, the Customs and Border Protection agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Mr. Obama still does not have an intelligence chief at the Department of Homeland Security, nor a top civilian in charge of military readiness at the Pentagon.
Mr. Obama is far enough along in his presidency that some early appointees are already leaving even before the last of the first round have assumed their posts. Among those who have left already is the person charged with filling the empty offices, Donald H. Gips, who quit as presidential personnel director to go to South Africa as ambassador last month.
The consequences can be felt in small ways and large — from the extra work for appointees on the job to the slowdown of policy reviews and development. For example, Mr. Obama’s promised cybersecurity initiative to improve coordination among government agencies and the private sector has stalled while he looks for someone to lead it.
“There’s every reason to be concerned,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader. “The president deserves to have his full complement of staff in the different agencies.”
But the White House expressed less concern because by its count it has matched or surpassed past presidents in putting together its government. “Given that we’re ahead of where previous administrations have been, we feel we’re moving at a fairly quick clip to get everything done,” said Bill Burton, a deputy White House press secretary.
Measuring the progress in appointments depends on what positions are counted and who is doing the counting. The White House Transition Project counts 543 policymaking jobs requiring Senate confirmation in four top executive ranks. As of last week, Mr. Obama had announced his selections for 319 of those positions, and the Senate had confirmed 236, or 43 percent of the top echelon of government. Other scholars have slightly different but similar tallies.
The White House prefers to include ambassadors, United States attorneys, marshals and judges, who are also subject to Senate votes but are not counted by the scholars. By that count, Mr. Obama has won confirmation of 304 nominees, compared with 301 for Mr. Bush, 253 for Bill Clinton and 212 for the first President George Bush at this point in their administrations.
If lower-ranking senior executive service officials and political appointees who do not require Senate approval are counted, the White House said it had installed 1,830 people, at least 50 percent more than any of the last three presidents had at this stage.
No matter how the counting is done, though, hundreds of senior positions remain empty with 15 percent of Mr. Obama’s term over. While appointments linger, those jobs are generally filled with acting officials — and the White House says that has not slowed its ability to effect change.
But acting officials do not have the full latitude that confirmed appointees do. “It’s just not the same thing,” said Paul Light, a professor at New York University who specializes in appointments. “They don’t have the same authority. They don’t feel the same loyalties or freedom to exert control. And what you get is drift in the agencies.”
Blame is being freely passed around. After several early nominees were discovered to have failed to pay some taxes, the White House tightened its vetting. The Senate Finance Committee has a former Internal Revenue Service official helping to go through many nominees’ taxes. And Republican senators are holding up nominees like John McHugh for Army secretary to influence what happens to the detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The Finance Committee argued that fault lay elsewhere. Scott Mulhauser, a spokesman for the panel, said it had approved 14 of 16 nominees whose paperwork was received before July. But officials said the process had become so intrusive that many candidates declined to be considered.
“Anyone who has gone through it or looked at this process will tell you that every administration it gets worse and it gets more cumbersome,” Mrs. Clinton said last month. “And some very good people, you know, just didn’t want to be vetted.” She added: “You have to hire lawyers, you have to hire accountants. I mean, it is ridiculous.”