They are the elephants in the government, and their tusks make them easy to spot as they tread the halls of federal buildings.

Yes, we're talking about political appointees. Numerous federal employees have called and written to say they are seeing more of these big foots, or at least their tracks, than ever before.

The sightings may be on point in some agencies, but overall, President Bush does not appear to have gathered a larger herd of political appointees than his predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton, according to snapshots provided by administration officials.

As of last month, 2,627 political appointees were at work on behalf of Bush, according to a personnel database and interviews with agency spokesmen. That's an increase of 14 from September 1996, near the end of Clinton's first term, the database shows. That's not much of a difference.

The perceptions of some federal employees may have been shaped at the end of the Clinton administration, when there were fewer appointees. In September 2000, 1,896 political appointees were on board, the database shows. The falloff probably reflects what happens in most second terms: Political appointees depart, and presidents do not have enough time to fill vacancies, in part because of paperwork requirements and a confirmation process that can exceed six months.

Paul C. Light, a New York University professor who has studied the presidential appointment process, said federal employees may feel that they are overseen by a larger number of appointees because Bush "has been aggressive about filling every political job" that law and custom allow.

Although total numbers may not vary much in some comparisons, Light said, it's important to remember that political appointees are occupying more management layers in the government and that "Bush has allowed this thickening to continue." As a result, federal employees feel they have never been farther from agency heads and the White House, Light said.

In addition, federal employees have seen "very tight coordination from the White House on down to the political appointees," Light said. "I don't think anyone has met an administrative control structure like the Bush administration has put into place. The White House intends for federal employees to feel the presence of appointees."

Counting political appointees, of course, is not easy. Appointees come and go. Some do not even stay in their jobs a full two years. Government reorganizations also make it difficult to draw straight-line comparisons. In addition, there's the matter of definition. The numbers used above do not include political appointees who are ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals, for example.

Congress, in its most recent "Plum Book," issued in 2000, listed 6,722 executive branch jobs that can be filled by appointments outside the competitive civil service. Experts usually calculate that as many as half of them can be given to political appointees.

For the snapshots of how many political appointees were in the Clinton and Bush administrations, the Office of Personnel Management used a database called the Executive and Schedule C System. For agencies in which the 2004 count seemed inconsistent with 1996, agency spokesmen were asked to provide explanations.

In some cases, agencies had added political appointees because Congress had authorized a new division or the agency had grown through reorganizations. The database also may not capture all appointees. The Justice Department, for instance, said it had 10 more appointees on board than the database showed.

According to the database, about a dozen agencies have more non-career executives or Schedule C appointees -- who take confidential and policymaking jobs -- than they did in September 1996. The database, for instance, showed that the Labor Department last month had 100 Schedule C appointees, an increase of 31 compared with September 1996. A spokeswoman attributed the increase to extra staff requirements to meet goals set by the president's management agenda.

G. Calvin Mackenzie, a Colby College professor who has studied presidential appointees, said federal employees may tend to believe that there has been an increase in appointees because they see "political types" advising agency leaders on special projects and during times of war. These advisers usually work without pay and only for a few weeks, he said.

"I do think there is a swinging door that doesn't show up in any official numbers," Mackenzie said.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com