Obama hands out plum ambassador posts to big campaign donors

President Obama has rewarded at least 19 campaign contributors and political allies with ambassadorships this year, according to an analysis by The Hill.

Nominations to plum postings have gone to no fewer than eight bundlers, six of whom raised more than $1 million for the president’s reelection campaign. The president has also given prized ambassadorships to key fundraising staffers, including the head of his 2012 finance operation.

Presidents of both parties have long rewarded donors with diplomatic prestige, but Obama appears to be outdoing his immediate predecessors.

{mosads}As of June 28, 32.2 percent of Obama’s ambassadorial appointments had gone to political appointees, according to the American Foreign Service Association, versus 30.02 percent under George W. Bush, 27.82 percent under Bill Clinton and 31.30 percent under George H.W. Bush.

Internal financial documents obtained by The New York Times suggest the price per post is also at an all-time high, although apples-to-apples comparisons aren’t possible because precise figures aren’t available for previous administrations.

The amounts raised by the eight bundlers in 2011-2012 ranged from $2.36 million by Women for Obama Finance Chairwoman Denise Bauer to $477,000 from Los Angeles entertainment attorney and Michelle Obama Princeton classmate Crystal Nix Hines. The two women have been named to serve as ambassadors to Belgium and UNESCO, respectively, while other bundlers have been tapped for service in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Singapore and Austria.

Another bundler, Democratic National Committee National Finance Chairwoman Jane Stetson, is rumored to be in line for the top diplomatic post in Paris, perhaps the most prestigious ambassadorial position of them all. Stetson raised $2.43 million for Obama. 

The Paris and London postings were also coveted by Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, Obama’s fourth biggest bundler, who raised $2.68 million, but she’s expected to have to settle for something else.

Retired JPMorgan Vice President Azita Raji, Obama’s second biggest bundler, at $3.15 million, is a top choice for ambassador to Switzerland. 

And Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy and a lifelong Democratic activist, is the heavy favorite for ambassador to Japan.

“I am proud that such experienced and committed individuals have agreed to serve the American people in these important roles,” Obama said when he named Matthew Barzun, the national finance chairman of Obama for America and a bundler who raised $2.31 million, to be ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Obama’s use of ambassadorships as rewards to bundlers has drawn cries of protest from career diplomats.

“Now is the time to end the spoils system and the de facto ‘three-year rental’ of ambassadorships,” the American Foreign Service Association said in a statement after Obama’s election. “The United States is alone in this practice; no other major democracy routinely appoints non-diplomats to serve as envoys to other countries.”

Retired U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that the practice amounted to selling public office to the highest bidder after a spate of donor appointments last week.

“All these people want to go to places where the lifestyle issues [are pleasant],” Pickering said. “It has the effect of diminishing perhaps the sense that the US is treating these countries with the respect they deserve.”

But not everyone is critical of the practice.

P.J. Crowley, who served as a State Department spokesman under Obama and at the National Security Council under Clinton, says top fundraisers are highly successful people who often make fine diplomats — especially in developed economies like Europe and Japan. He said most of Obama’s political nominees had been “very, very successful,” highlighting the case of Obama bundler Donald Gips, who won the State Department’s Award for Exemplary Diplomatic Service one year after becoming ambassador to South Africa.

“A major aspect of their job is creating economic opportunities for the U.S.,” said Crowley, now with The George Washington University. “These are eminently successful people and they know how to operate.”

Bundlers aren’t the only ones being rewarded for their fundraising prowess.

Rufus Gifford raised more than $700 million as Obama’s campaign finance chairman and has been tapped to be ambassador to Denmark. John Phillips, the chairman of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the president’s reelection and hopes the Senate will approve his posting to Italy.

Other appointees are close political allies of Obama’s. These include Samantha Power, his choice for ambassador to the United Nations; DNC Executive Director and Obama’s 2008 campaign political director Patrick Gaspard, tapped to go to South Africa; White House Deputy Chief of Staff Mark Childress, the nominee for Tanzania; and former Office of Personnel Management head John Berry, the president’s choice for ambassador to Australia.

The five other second-term nominees who aren’t considered career diplomats are former California Supreme Court Judge Carlos Moreno (Belize); former Catholic Relief Services head Kenneth Hackett (Holy See); former Center for American Progress Director Reuben Brigety (African Union); Native American “super lawyer” Keith Harper (U.N. Human Rights Council); and former Deputy National Security Adviser Douglas Lute (NATO).

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