After emerging victorious from the most expensive presidential election in American history, Barrack Obama had a whole lot of favors to repay. Maybe that’s why he’s promoted more campaign fundraising allies to ambassadorships than any other president. To be fair, President Obama’s predecessors, both Republican and Democrat, have a well-documented record of handing out ambassadorships to fundraising allies (more on that later). The Obama administration, however, has taken the practice to new heights.
A recent analysis by the Guardian found that President Obama’s ambassador nominees have raised an average of $1.8 million for his election and re-election campaigns. Though the nominees may be prolific fundraisers, they seem to be lacking in other areas like, say, any experience whatsoever that might qualify someone for an ambassadorship.
This has led to more than its fair share of embarrassing moments and painfully awkward confirmation hearings. Our new political fundraiser turned ambassador to Argentina, for example, has never been to Argentina and isn’t fluent in Spanish, although he did bundle $1.4 million for Obama’s reelection campaign. Another bundler turned ambassador nominee to Norway was unable to correctly identify Norway’s system of government (you’d think being called before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would at least merit skimming the Wikipedia page first). And our new ambassador to Hungary (a NATO ally) was unable to name a single US interest in the region. That region being Europe.
What these three people were able to do is raise a combined $3 million for Obama. The absurdity of this ongoing practice is nicely summed up by this recent segment from The Daily Show:
These nominations come on the heels of another spate of political appointees including former Senator Max Baucus, who admitted he was “no real expert on China” shortly before being appointed to the top diplomatic post in China, and Nicole Avant, who somehow managed to take an unbelievable 296 personal days over her 2 year term as ambassador to the Bahamas.
While President Obama has handed out more politically motivated ambassadorships than any other president (37% of his appointments so far), he’s far from alone. George W. Bush handed out 30% of his ambassadorships to political allies, just a bit more than Bill Clinton (27.8%), and little less than his father, George H.W. Bush (31%). American presidents have a long and storied tradition of appointing political allies to ambassadorships, and the practice remains maddeningly legal.
When the candidate spending the most money wins his of her election 91% of the time, it’s hard to overstate the influence of money on our political system. Crony ambassador appointments serve as yet another example illustrating the inherent opportunities for corruption that arise from political system that forces politicians to spend up to 70% of their time fundraising. To get a better sense of the scale of this problem, check out this wonderful interactive map from the Center for Public Integrity which allows the user to trace the relationship a particular Ambassador with President Obama.