Caroline Kennedy speaks at a 2008 election rally in Los Angeles for then-Sen.… (Phil McCarten / European…)
WASHINGTON — Since the beginning of his second term, President Obama has appointed campaign fundraisers, party allies and other political figures as ambassadors at a level that is now almost double what has prevailed in the last few administrations.
More than 56% of Obama's 41 second-term ambassadorial nominations have been political, compared with an average of about 30% for recent administrations, according to U.S. government figures compiled by the American Foreign Service Assn. Of the political nominees, at least half have had fundraising roles.
The trend has emerged as the nomination of Caroline Kennedy to be ambassador to Japan, announced Wednesday, could renew the debate about selecting political allies who may have little diplomatic or country-specific expertise.
Critics contend that even if the political appointees are highly capable, they can't make the strongest case for America's interests if they don't understand the country deeply.
Kennedy, who swung her family's crucial support to Obama during his 2008 primary fight with Hillary Rodham Clinton, is known as an intelligent, low-key woman who has never held a government post and has shunned the spotlight. She has spent much of her time in recent years promoting the Kennedy legacy as chairwoman of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, and writing and editing books, most related to the Kennedy family.
Her advocates say Kennedy, the first woman nominated for the post, will bring close presidential ties and star power to a country with warm memories of her father, who smoothed over some diplomatic conflicts as president.
But Kennedy doesn't speak Japanese and has no special knowledge of Asia. Nor, apparently, does she bring the glad-handing inclinations of many businesspeople and lawyers who move from political roles to diplomatic posts.
In January 2009, Kennedy was briefly the front-runner for a gubernatorial appointment to fill out the U.S. Senate term vacated by Clinton when she became secretary of State. But Kennedy, clearly uncomfortable with the intense scrutiny of New York politics, abruptly bowed out of consideration.
"She's a very private person and she was uncomfortable in that public role," said Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College in New York City. "She's an intelligent woman who I'm sure will understand the U.S.-Japanese relationship. But she does sort of run against type in this job."
Defenders of political appointments argue that the ambassador's job has been diminished by modern communications that make it easy for presidents to stay in touch with foreign leaders. They point to successful non-career-diplomats, including John Roos, the current ambassador to Japan. A former Silicon Valley lawyer and Obama fundraiser, he won over the Japanese through energetic outreach, including posting on Twitter in Japanese.
A White House spokesman, Matt Lehrich, said in a statement that many nominations remained to be made and that "any assessment … should consider them as a whole, not based on a small, unrepresentative sample."
But critics say the professionals still have an advantage, which is why America's most important allies, including Japan, generally assign career diplomats who can make their case on television in English to serve in Washington. The current Japanese ambassador to the U.S. is a 39-year veteran of the Foreign Ministry.
"Our ambassadors so often don't really know much about the place," said Clyde Prestowitz, an Asia specialist and former U.S. official. "And their ability to play the game is a lot less."
Kennedy has been trying to learn more about Japan and is considering hiring a Japan specialist as a personal advisor if she becomes ambassador, according to Washington experts on Japan.
Yet even with a good staff, "it's not optimal," said Douglas Paal, an Asia specialist and former U.S. official with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Paal predicted the Japanese would warmly welcome Kennedy. But he said that with Japan facing serious issues, including tensions with China over disputed islands and rising Japanese nationalism, it is "a bit of an unusual time to send a person whose value is more symbolic than substantive."
A federal law discourages political appointments for ambassadorships. Yet presidents have found it difficult to resist rewarding supporters who dream of such plum positions in return for grueling fundraising chores.
President Clinton deplored such appointments during his first campaign, but found it too difficult to avoid using them.
Among Obama's political appointees are at least a dozen who have raised money for his campaign, including Matthew Barzun of Louisville, Ky., nominated to be the ambassador to Britain; John Phillips of Washington, nominee for Italy; John Emerson of Beverly Hills, nominee for Germany; and Kirk Wagar of Miami, nominee for Singapore.