But the emerging initial choices, some of which are nearly final, are familiar names in Biden’s world.
The list of potential diplomats includes Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for envoy to the World Food Program, a United Nations body, and former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel for ambassador to Japan, said people familiar with the White House plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the nominations are pending.
David Cohen, a Comcast executive who hosted Biden’s first official 2020 presidential fundraising event, probably will be nominated as U.S. ambassador to Canada; former interior secretary Ken Salazar is in line to be the next ambassador to Mexico.
Denise Bauer, who led a women’s support network for Biden, is expected to be nominated for the plum posting in France, those people said.
Additional boldface nominations are expected over the next month or more, potentially including former Democratic senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, a longtime friend of Biden, and former Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican and Trump critic who endorsed Biden.
The White House declined to comment on the names or the timing of the picks.
Biden adviser Mark Gitenstein is expected to be named as the ambassador to the European Union. Former Biden adviser Julie Smith is expected to become the U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and major Biden donor Michael Adler is expected to be named as ambassador to Belgium, the people familiar with White House plans said.
Biden’s first scheduled foreign trip will take him to the United Kingdom and Brussels in June. In Belgium, Biden will meet with both NATO and E.U. allies. His expected initial slates of ambassador nominations include candidates for all three of the U.S. diplomatic postings in Brussels.
There is no clear front-runner for ambassador to the United Kingdom, a vital U.S. ally and Biden’s scheduled first stop for a summit among Group of Seven nations.
Former State Department official Thomas R. Nides has emerged as the likely candidate for ambassador to Israel, and veteran diplomat R. Nicholas Burns is expected to be named as Biden’s ambassador to China.
Biden has never enjoyed asking for donations but has forged many deep relationships over his more than four decades in politics. He nonetheless has a lengthy list of donors, allies and former colleagues who are lining up to land plum foreign postings.
The Biden White House has been slower than other new administrations to name “political” ambassadors.
There are typically about 50 ambassadorial posts reserved for a president’s friends or political allies. President Donald Trump greatly increased the number to above 50 percent in some years. The figure was 44 percent in 2020, his last year in office.
The political posts include London and Paris, which both come with stunning mansions but modest entertaining budgets that wealthy ambassadors are expected to subsidize.
The majority of the approximately 190 postings are filled by career State Department employees. Biden has already forwarded several such career nominations to the Senate. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was among the first nominees Biden announced as president-elect.
Jockeying for the spots has become intense.
Administration officials have said their early priorities were to lead the nation out of the coronavirus pandemic and get Biden’s Cabinet and other high-ranking aides confirmed by the Senate. Ambassadors also must be confirmed by the Senate.
“This is a popular question, including from some people who want to be ambassadors,” Psaki said on March 3, when asked about the anticipated timeline.
President Barack Obama put forward his first political ambassador candidates in March of his first term.
Biden’s advisers have been wary of appearing to dole out favors to a string of privileged insiders at the start of the president’s term, especially since any list of the 78-year-old Biden’s closest political friends and donors skews older and less diverse.
“President Biden has been clear his leadership team will reflect America’s diversity, and that includes ambassadorships,” a White House spokeswoman said Tuesday.
Biden largely has fulfilled a pledge to select a Cabinet that “looks like America.” The majority of his picks are not White, and nearly half are women.
“Obviously we are watching, but we are encouraged by the commitments the president and secretary of state have made publicly to increasing the number of career ambassadors and nominees to senior policy jobs in Washington, and so far we have seen a very diverse set of nominees which we think is critical in light of the real deficit of diversity in the State Department and Foreign Service,” said Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association.
It is not clear which names would be among the first Biden puts forward, but the initial slate is not expected to be large. Smith, whose name has been mentioned for the NATO role for weeks, appears likely to be near the front of the line.
Biden conceded as a candidate that he would not rule out appointing political donors to the highly coveted ambassadorships despite pressure from progressive Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).
Biden’s long political career and his foreign policy expertise as vice president and as a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee mean he has a deep bench from which to choose.
That also poses problems.
“He knows too many people and he has too many friends,” said one person close to the selection process.
Biden “is the only person who can make many of these decisions,” and he has dithered about some of the most politically important postings, that person said.
Adler, a Florida donor, had angled for the posting in Israel. Nides, if he is nominated for the Israel post, would bring both government and private-sector experience. He is a Morgan Stanley executive.
Burns was a career Foreign Service officer who rose to be ambassador to NATO and also to Greece, and held top management jobs at the State Department. He runs a foreign-policy program at Harvard University, and is an author and well-known commentator. His profile reflects the Biden administration’s view that China is the nation’s primary foreign policy and national security challenge.
The United States is unusual among major democracies in naming a president’s friends or supporters as ambassadors. Most of the closest U.S. allies, from Canada to Britain to Japan, rely on career diplomats and bureaucrats for even the most high-profile postings.