My Washington Post colleague Tyler Pager noted that officials said “the president’s first batch of political ambassadors and their deep foreign policy experience is part of his effort to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to reestablishing America’s leadership role on the world stage.”
A hardy perennial of incoming administrations has been to dole out some plum posts to well-connected megadonors. President Donald Trump was particularly egregious, selecting some true dimwits while boosting the number of political appointments to a record high. During the campaign, some were worried that President Biden would continue this practice after he refused to rule out such appointments.
Furthermore, Biden’s wealthy supporters have been trying to call in their chits. New York magazine’s Gabriel Debenedetti reported last week on the efforts by megadonors to bend the ear of any Biden-whisperer they can find to receive an overseas posting: “It’s hard for the president’s top aides to scroll through their inboxes without finding dozens of unsolicited letters of introduction and recommendations pinged in from increasingly agitated corners of East Hampton, Beverly Hills, and Miami Beach. Inside the emails … are résumés, memos, and pitches from donors, celebrities, and occasional influencers. … Most of them want the same thing: some sort of overseas posting.”
Debenedetti, however, also reports that “most of their lobbying is at best ineffective right now,” and it is worth considering why. Part of it is due to the Biden team’s long memory — these were the same megadonors who thought Biden could not hack it in the primary and only glommed on to him late in the game. Part of it is that after four years of Trump’s awful ambassadorial choices, Biden wants to do better. This rules out wealthy but inexperienced donors.
Finally, Biden’s preference for political appointments seems grounded more in old governing hands than money. That is the theme that connects Biden’s first slate of political appointees with those in the pipeline. Those are also the political appointments that will please allies. As Spoiler Alerts noted last month, “appoint a political ally to the post, and an administration is communicating [to that country] that they will have privileged access to policy principals.”
If there is a complaint to Biden’s strategy, it is that it is taking a long time. Some other expected names, like Rahm Emanuel as ambassador to Japan or Nick Burns as ambassador to China, were not announced with this group. The New York Times’s Anni Karni explains: “Some of the announcements have been delayed as the White House has sought to roll out a diverse slate of appointees. In addition to racial and gender diversity, Mr. Biden also wanted to signal to career Foreign Service officials that they are valued by whittling down the number of posts given to campaign donors.”