Obama Draws Fire for Ambassador Nominations

December 12,2014

WHITE HOUSE— The Obama administration has drawn criticism for appointing an unusual number of political donors as ambassadors. That criticism peaked this week after the Senate confirmed a soap opera producer with little knowledge of Hungary to serve as ambassador to that country.

It is not unusual for presidents to name campaign donors to ambassador posts, but scenes such as the sharp questioning at a congressional hearing on the nomination of ambassadors to Iceland and Norway have fueled extra criticism.

They might not have the resume, but they have been hefty campaign donors and fundraisers.

Donations, political appointees

The cost of an ambassador post? Half a million dollars or more in donations is the average some appointees have donated or gathered for the president’s party, according to Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics.

“The unfortunate reality, though, is that some of these people are not qualified, and they are getting to the front of the line," Krumholz said. " In fact, they are performing an end run around more qualified candidates because of how much they are giving to the campaign and the parties."

Robert Silverman, president of the American Foreign Service Association, believes the practice jeopardizes U.S. foreign policy when it comes to strategically important countries.

“It’s one thing to be sending a non-career person to a small island country, say Palau, where we have a traditionally good relationship, where there are no issues that would come up. It’s another thing to be sending a brand new person, who’s never worked in this field to a country like Hungary, and we have concerns about that,” said Silverman.

Soap opera producer

Obama’s pick for ambassador to Hungary? Colleen Bell, producer of a soap opera called “The Bold and the Beautiful.” She was confirmed this month, despite objections of Republicans, including Senator John McCain.

“I am not against political appointees. I am not against -- I understand how the game is played, but here we are, a nation that is on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator, getting in bed with Vladimir Putin, and we're going to send the producer of 'The Bold and the Beautiful' as our representative," said McCain.

Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, was pressed to say whether Bell’s donations are what qualified her for the job.

“She is somebody who retains the confidence -- well, let me say it this way: Ambassador Bell has the President’s confidence that she will do an excellent job representing the United States and maintaining the important relationship that the United States has with the government and the people of Hungary.”

While Obama is not the first to appoint political loyalists in place of career diplomats, analysts say he has done so more often: 40 percent of his ambassadors are political appointees compared to 30 percent under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.