Obama Spoils System Champ

Obama FundraiserA USA Today report that “Nearly a year after he was elected on a pledge to change business-as-usual in Washington, Obama also has taken a cue from his predecessors and appointed fundraisers to coveted ambassadorships” and in fact has done so at “a rate higher than any president in more than four decades” combined with  story in The Hill that lobbyists are being routinely invited to fundraisers has, unsurprisingly, generated quite a bit of discussion in the blogosphere.

In my New Atlanticist post “Professional Ambassadors Needed,” I argue that “The real issue here isn’t corruption or even Obama’s hypocrisy” but rather “the fact that presidents have the discretion to appoint pretty much whomever they please to more than 5000 senior positions in the government, that vast number of which would be far better filled with career professionals.”

It makes good sense for presidents to appoint loyalists to key advisory and policymaking positions.  The Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor, for example, need to be people the new president trusts implicitly.  Ditto undersecretaries and other senior policymakers and, to a lesser extent, senior positions at NSC, independent policymaking boards, and the like.  There are legitimate partisan and ideological differences in the country and it’s perfectly reasonable that the public policy decision-making apparatus of the Executive Branch be staffed by people who largely agree with the elected president and serve at his pleasure.

Conversely, ambassadors and other working-level positions carry out policy rather than making it.   Professional officers of our foreign, intelligence, and military service (uniformed and civilian, in the case of the latter) can be trusted to faithfully and expertly carry out their orders.

Changing the law on this and drastically cutting back the number of appointed positions (which, practically, would have to be done prospectively, going into effect with Obama’s successor) would greatly improve the efficiency of our government.  Not only would it ensure that these positions are filled by competent professionals rather than enthusiastic amateurs but it would mean that they are filled, period.  We’re nearly a quarter into Obama’s term and a substantial number of these slots remain unfilled.  The process of selecting, vetting, and confirming individuals for such a large number of vacancies is a tremendous drain of resources.

And, yes, I’ve held this view during Republican administrations as well.

Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Furhead says:

    So for the sake of argument, let’s say I completely agree. How is this situation going to get changed?

  2. odograph says:

    Obama is a much more conventional politician than right or left really want to accept. The left had hoped for widescale and progressive change. The right had a perverse hope for socialist overhaul.

    Did you catch Sam Tanenhaus on Charlie Rose? He called Obama “classically conservative” based on his personal nature. He observed, I think rightly, that Obama has the tendency to “conserve and improve” which is not at all revolutionary.

    That a classically conservative politician would use the mechanisms in place is not that surprising.

  3. steve says:

    IOW Obama is an incrementalist.

    Agree with you on this on. It is even more important now that you have a whole industry worth millions, maybe billions, of dollars based on creating false outrage by combing over every utterance and term paper of any named official. Way too much time wasted.


  4. James Joyner says:

    How is this situation going to get changed?

    By amending civil service regulations and making, say, all but the top 200 or even 500 slots part of the normal personnel system.

  5. Joey Buzz says:

    Business as usual will not change until the questionable practices are repeatedly called out and the wrong doers held accountable.

  6. anjin-san says:

    So what has he done that make him the “champ”? That sort of implies that what he is doing is worse than what has gone on before…

  7. odograph says:

    Joey, the interesting thing is the word “questionable.” To make it more than that, you’d have to show that some number of these fundraisers were bad ambassadors, etc., or that they were sent places that matter.

  8. Trumwill says:

    So what has he done that make him the “champ”?

    As the post says, he has done so at a higher rate than his last several predecessors.

    On the other hand, the spots aren’t all filled yet. Perhaps Obama will bring that number down with fewer donor-appointees for the remaining vacancies.

    I agree with James, though. This is something that should be addressed on an institutional level rather than the regular post-election ritual wherein the side that hates the president (of whichever party) acts shocked and outraged.

  9. James Joyner says:

    So what has he done that make him the “champ”? That sort of implies that what he is doing is worse than what has gone on before…

    This is covered by at “a rate higher than any president in more than four decades.”

  10. Brett says:

    The ambassador thing always struck me as bizarre. We’re picking the top representatives and official “face” of America for particular countries on the basis of how much money they gave during the Presidential campaign?

    I’m with you, James – I think Congress ought to pass another civil service law turning ambassadors into a career position. Or at least requiring that the President pick a candidate from a set of eligible people in the state department.

  11. John Burgess says:

    In my 25-year career in the foreign service, I’ve worked with both political and career ambassadors.

    The best and worst were both political appointees, but career ambassadors weren’t far behind in either category. The Peter Principle is very much alive and well, after all. As far as I could tell, there was no prior guarantee that any ambassador would be a good one unless he had a proven record. Even that, though, could be deceptive if the career ambassador were the pet project of higher management.

    Some politically-appointed ambassadors really know their chops; others are just hacks. What all of them, including the weakest, bring to the table is direct access to the President, something that receiving countries keep very much in mind when deciding whether to accept an ambassador.

    These countries would rather have an ambassador who can pick up a phone and talk to the President rather than have to go through layers of State Dept. bureaucracy… Desk, Deputy Ass’t Secretary, Assistant Secretary, Under Secretary, Secretary. Then, maybe, they’ll get somebody in the WH to take a call within the WH pecking order.

    The difference is not trivial.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    James, I’d have more confidence in a highly professionalized foreign service if State had a stronger ethic analogous to Defense’s ethic of civilian control.

    Foreign service officers are human just like everybody else and, consequently, come fully equipped with preferences, politics, and agendas. I think that some career foreign service personnel have inordinate disdain for the “temporary help” and there’s enough passive aggressive shenanigans to make it hard for the president to do his job at times.

    There are times when that may be a good thing and, indeed, I occasionally take solace in it. However, that isn’t the way things are supposed to work.

  13. I think we need a price sheet.

    I want to know how much I have to give to get to be Ambassador to the Caymans, or maybe Monaco.

  14. “Too many pigs. Not enough tits.” — Abraham Lincoln

  15. sam says:

    Heh, nice one Charles. I’d forgotten that line.

  16. Wayne says:

    I disagree that the issue is about if the President should appoint ambassadors. The issue is once again that Obama promise one thing and does the opposite. There are plusses and minuses on both appointing career diplomats and outsiders. I think a good mix of both is needed. Appointing only outsiders or career diplomats would be foolish.

    The problem is when the President appoints someone not because they are the best one for the job but for political payback. Sometimes they are one and the same but the more a President does it the more likely he is not appointing the best person for the job. I think most Presidents overdue paybacks and don’t appoint the best person for the job. Obama is doing it at even worst pace than his predecessors even though he promised otherwise. Another broken promise but that doesn’t seem to bother some.

  17. John Burgess says:

    Michael Reynolds: Ambassadorships to crappy countries where nothing much of geopolitical importance are going on can be had for very reasonable sums… in the order of $10K in donations and/or fundraising or ten years of political activity.

    If you’re looking at Rome, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, the Vatican, or Monaco, you’re in the tens of millions of dollars range.

    Among crappy posts you can include Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde Islands, Suriname, and the little islands of the South Pacific like Tuvalu.

    If a place is politically hot, then you need to be either a very good friend/supporter or usually a career officer.

    At times, unfortunately, a quiet dump can turn into a strategically important place suddenly and then you (and we all) have problems.

  18. CottonMan says:

    For Wayne: You are correct…Obama has turned out to be a great disappointment with his ‘change’ campaign. He never did represent the people. It’s the same with our politicians when they only represent big govt. not the people.

    I’m hoping there can be a vialble 3rd party in 2012 so we have a real choice.

    Americans are fed up with both pol. parties. There is a new pol. thriller book just out that I am encouraging everyone to read cause it’s about a small town in America that finally stands up to federal tyranny & the politicians & bureaucrats & end up starting the 2nd American Revolution.

    It’s insightful of today’s govt. w/pol appointees (5,000+)who try to get into our personal lives. See what’s the nxt 3 yrs. will bring & how upset many Americans are with Washington. Just read it, it’s that good.

  19. Franklin says:

    Where would one even find 5000+ people that are halfway qualified?

  20. An Interested Party says:

    While the president has been very disappointing in delivering the change that we were supposed to believe in, I find it fascinating that most of this talk coming from certain quarters about the “tyranny” of government seems to have suddenly appeared on January 20th of this year…as if the trends for said “tyranny” didn’t exist before that date…