Obama revs up the patronage machine

It has been clear for some time that President Obama has followed the time-dishonored practice of rewarding campaign contributors with cushy jobs in government and other benefits. But a new report by the Center for Public Integrity documents the outrageous extent to which the president’s financial benefactors are being installed in important positions, including ambassadorships.

An inquiry by the center’s investigative team found that more than two years into Obama’s administration, “nearly 200 of his biggest donors have landed plum government jobs and advisory posts, won federal contracts worth millions of dollars for their business interests or attended numerous elite White House meetings and social events.” Especially likely to be rewarded are “bundlers,” fundraisers who collect contributions from many individuals.

“Nearly 80% of those who collected more than $500,000 for Obama took ‘key administration posts,’ as defined by the White House,” the report said. “More than half the ambassador nominees who were bundlers raised more than half a million.” (Twenty-four bundlers have been appointed ambassadors).

Not every bundler appointed to an important position is unqualified, as the report might suggest. For example, the report notes that Obama named Julius Genachowski, who bundled $500,000 for his campaign, as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Yet Genachowski is also a former chief counsel to an FCC chairman and an expert in telecommunications law.


The Center for Public Integrity report also can be faulted for being priggish in its criticism of minor rewards for contributions. The fact that a donor might be invited to a White House dinner pales as an ethical problem next to the political dispensation of ambassadorships and other key positions. But in general it documents a perversion of the appointments process.

Jaded Washington observers will say it was ever thus and that presidents have long installed cronies in palatial embassies. Besides, they say, political patronage appointees are seldom installed in vital positions. For example, when a president is looking for an ambassador to a strategically important country, he is more likely to choose a career diplomat than a crony. That doesn’t alter the offensiveness of naming political contributors to ambassadorships and other positions. As the candidate of hope and change, Obama should have turned off the patronage machine. Instead, he revved it up.