Much of President Barack Obama’s pre-election stump speeches focused on the perceived need to reinvigorate America’s moral leadership around the world. Indeed, rhetoric on the White House website says, “President Obama and Vice President Biden will renew America’s security and standing in the world through a new era of American leadership.”
Critical first steps, many would argue, were his appointments of former rival and New York senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State and adviser Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations. The president has sent former senator George Mitchell to the Mideast and Richard Holbrook to Afghanistan and Pakistan as special envoys. So far, so good.
Presidents appoint ambassadors to represent American interests abroad. Presumably presidents appoint seasoned, experienced foreign diplomats to such delicate tasks. So President Obama has dozens of ambassadors to appoint. And the first rumor is … Dan Rooney as ambassador to Ireland? The owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and president and co-founder of The American Ireland Funds?
Neither the White House nor Mr. Rooney have commented. Now, Mr. Rooney may be qualified to be an ambassador. But with a State Department stable filled with foreign-policy professionals, why would a president need to appoint the owner of a professional sports franchise as an ambassador?
Well, we all know the answer, don’t we? Patronage. Presidents hand out ambassadorships like candy to those who helped — financially — put them in the White House.
In June 2007, Scholars & Rogues examined the ambassadorial appointments of three presidents:
President Bush’s 36 percent rate exceeds the 29 percent of President Clinton’s ambassadorial nominees who were non-career appointees. During George Herbert Walker Bush’s presidency, about 31 percent were non-career appointees.
According to a Scholars & Rogues examination of records at the Office of the Historian of the Department of State, George W. Bush has made 370 ambassadorial nominations — of which 133 have been non-career appointees rather than career Foreign Service officers. President Clinton’s 431 nominations included 127 non-career appointees. The first President Bush made 272 nominations, of which 85 were non-career appointees.
The post also examined the financial connections to President George W. Bush’s campaigns of those appointed to patronage ambassadorships.
The post discerned that under these three presidents, some nations knew only non-career, or patronage, appointments. The Obama White House website, under a section called “Renewing American Diplomacy,” says:
Obama and Biden will rebuild our alliances to meet the common challenges of the 21st century. America is strongest when we act alongside strong partners. Now is the time for a new era of international cooperation that strengthens old partnerships and builds new ones to confront the common challenges of the 21st century — terrorism and nuclear weapons; climate change and poverty; genocide and disease. …
To make diplomacy a priority, Obama and Biden will stop shuttering consulates and start opening them in difficult corners of the world — particularly in Africa. They will expand our foreign service, and develop our civilian capacity to work alongside the military. [emphasis added]
President Obama has a promise to keep to the electorate — improve American diplomacy. He ran on that platform. But he — as did the presidents before him — has a political need to retain or curry favor with political donors. Eventually, you’ll see some Obama appointments that produce a “What the …” response.
Should you wonder whom to look for as potential patronage appointments, consider this Center for Responsive Politics list of the 561 bundlers who secured at least $63 million for President Obama’s campaign. Then there’s list of employers of President Obama’s top contributors. And this list of the top 20 industries that contributed to his campaign.
Should you wish to keep track of how seriously President Obama views ambassadorial relationships with foreign governments, check the White House website for “Nominations and Appointments” from time to time — as S&R will.
President Obama promised voters better government and better diplomacy. Let’s keep track of whom he appoints to do that.