Though Biden has been presented with the names of top contenders for ambassadorships to the European Union, NATO and other high-level posts, including China and Russia, and is expected to make a decision on at least some of those positions in April, people familiar with the matter say that on the vast majority of ambassador posts, the president is still weeks away from deciding on the broader makeup of his diplomatic corps.
Biden is notoriously deliberative on most major personnel decisions, but the timing of ambassador nominations is also not seen as an urgent matter inside the White House, where fighting the pandemic has been the chief priority over the first two months of his presidency. The White House has also made clear that it wants to focus on judicial nominations before turning to ambassadors.
On Tuesday when asked about the timeline for decisions on ambassadors, White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not have an update.
The slow-moving process has however been the subject of rising frustration among some top-level donors, who have been eyeing key ambassador posts since Biden won the election. The whispers have largely remained in the background, however, as top Biden advisers have made clear that campaigning for an ambassadorship is highly frowned upon.
A key gatekeeper is Katie Petrelius, who served as national finance director for the Biden campaign, and is now the special assistant to Biden for presidential personnel. She is tasked with fielding inquiries from donors, lawmakers and others who are interested in ambassador posts.
Steve Ricchetti, a longtime political adviser to Biden who is now working steps away from the Oval Office as counselor to the President, is overseeing the process, along with Cathy Russell, director of the presidential personnel office at the White House. They have only recently started presenting information to Biden for review, people familiar with the matter say, and only on a handful of positions.
Reasserting role of career diplomats
A key priority for Biden in filling out his diplomatic corps will be to reassert the role of career diplomats over top donors, an effort seen as vital toward restoring morale inside the State Department.
“Under President Biden, ambassadorships will be remarkably hard to come by,” a top Biden donor who is familiar with the process told CNN. “That has been made perfectly clear.”
Early frustrations at the State Department are rooted in fears about whether Biden will uphold that overall commitment of enabling career diplomats, State Department officials told CNN.
“Restoring morale means not just leaning on career officials but enabling them. We have seen some of that, but they need to do more,” said a senior State Department official.
The Biden administration has already given current diplomats a more influential voice. The Trump administration did not normally include ambassadors in principal committee meetings, but now the ambassadors or chiefs of mission are invited.
Biden officials are also planning for a larger percentage of career ambassadors than the Trump administration, said one administration official.
The average number of political appointee ambassadors from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama was 31% and that number rose to 43% under Trump, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report authored by experienced State Department officials who are now part of Biden’s administration.
Rewarding donors with ambassador posts can have negative repercussions the report said.
“While noncareer ambassadors can bring fresh ideas, leadership acumen, and political cachet to a bilateral relationship, the long-standing, bipartisan practice of rewarding donors with plum postings undercuts U.S. national security as well as career officer advancement and sets the United States apart from most of its allies, China, and Russia,” the report said.
Rebalancing to the historical average is where Biden is likely headed, say sources familiar with the process. Though that may not be enough to assuage frustrations — which have lasted for decades — among career State Department officials when the most influential posts are given out to political appointees.
“This is a team that committed to rebuilding the department. Everyone feels that they are doing it already,” said a second State Department official. “But to a lot of us rebuilding the department also means getting away from the model of donors leading missions.”
The State Department has identified a number of career officials who could take on ambassador roles, said a State Department official. Without White House decisions on which political appointees will get certain posts, the department is stuck waiting.
Top contenders emerging
Several prominent names are already topping the lists for some posts: former Ambassador Nick Burns for China; former Biden national security adviser Julie Smith for NATO; former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for Japan.
Biden is also keeping in mind longtime friends and allies from the Senate who were helpful to his campaign. In addition to Cindy McCain, who is seen as on track for a European post, Biden is also believed to be considering former Missouri Sen. Claire Mckaskill, former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar for posts, along with Vicki Kennedy, whose late husband Edward Kennedy served along Biden for decades.
The slow rollout of ambassador announcements is not surprising, explain former senior State Department officials.
“It is absolutely important for the Biden administration to choose career foreign service officers for ambassador posts. But I would give them a couple more months to do this,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former senior State Department official. “If a lot of political nominations start coming out and not career names that would be a fundamental mistake or at least an unforced error. But now it is early. It can take at least 3-4 months to get people nominated.”
Kennedy added that the security clearance and ethics processes are intense and extensive, even for career foreign service officers who need to go through the presidential investigation standard. He said the time to watch is early summer, when the transfers of career foreign service officers traditionally take place.