President Obama, beginning his last two years in office, is within striking distance of passing President George W. Bush in appointing the most political (non-career) ambassadors in recent years.
Just after Obama’s election in 2008, we wrote that the “early speculation is that Obama may be more inclined to follow President Clinton’s model and select people, often political types, with some foreign policy credentials or knowledge of a country’s language or culture.”
In a news conference in January 2009, Obama said: “And so, you know, my expectation is that high quality civil servants are going to be rewarded. You know, are there going to be political appointees to ambassadorships? There probably will be some.”
Big contributors were aghast. But not to worry. It depends on your definition of “some.”
Less than a year later, we wrote that the new administration was following tradition and doling out plum posts to big donors.
Judging from many of his nominees — not just the three celebrated ones cuffed about in their Senate hearings (two of them are now in Hungary and Argentina, the third withdrew) — the tendency to reward contributors hasn’t abated since.
As a result, Obama could, by the end of his presidency, surpass both Bush as well as Clinton in terms of the number of fat-cat contributors and non-career folks being rewarded with cushy ambassadorships. (Norway, Luxembourg and Mexico are now open slots — though ambassadors in the latter two are staying on for now — and often go to non-career people.)
The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) — the career diplomats union — finds that Obama, after six years, has filled or nominated 132 ambassadorial posts with non-foreign service folks. That’s 15 more than Clinton appointed in his two terms and only three fewer than Bush — who was sharply criticized for his penchant for doling the plums to fat-cat contributors — named in his eight years.
In terms of percentages, AFSA calculates 28.06 percent of Clinton’s ambassadors were political appointees and 29.8 percent of Bush’s were non-career. Obama’s percentage right now is 34.9 percent.
However, nominations of non-career folks tend to drop dramatically in the last couple years of any administration — after all, it’s hardly worth the effort to try to send someone overseas for a year. So Obama’s percentage should drop down closer to 30 percent, we’re told.
But he could still end up appointing more non-career people than either of his two immediate predecessors. (President Reagan, however, will almost surely retain the overall world indoor record for such appointments, with 159.)