The Biden administration currently has two major initiatives to fight joblessness in America. One is the American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion package for infrastructure, health care, and clean energy that President Joe Biden recently unveiled during a joint session of Congress. The other is dedicated solely to finding a plum federal gig for former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
It hasn’t been easy. During Biden’s transition to office last December, Emanuel pitched himself as a potential secretary of transportation, reportedly citing both his experience working with Congress as a former representative and his stint as President Barack Obama’s first White House chief of staff. But the effort went nowhere as Emanuel faced backlash from progressives and civil rights groups over his handling of a high-profile police shooting in Chicago as mayor.
After that failure, there were rumors he would be considered for something more low-key—an ambassadorship to China or Japan, perhaps. Multiple news outlets reporting on Tuesday have confirmed that Biden is now set to nominate Emanuel to be the top U.S. diplomat in Tokyo. It’s a bizarre choice for the job and one that doesn’t reflect well on the Biden administration’s priorities.
Part of the problem is the nominee himself. Emanuel is not exactly known for his diplomatic demeanor. His habit of launching into profanity-filled tirades is so well established that it inspired a popular Twitter parody account in 2011. “Your next motherfucking mayor,” claimed the account’s bio. “Get used to it, assholes.” While Emanuel was working in the Clinton White House, The New Yorker reported, he once stabbed a table with a knife while “shouting the names of people who betrayed Bill Clinton.” Obama, the second president to employ Emanuel, once claimed that Emanuel’s loss of his middle finger in a teenage meat-slicing mishap “rendered him practically mute.” Bluntness and brashness may be useful dishes in a diplomat’s cookbook, but perhaps not as the regular offering.
And then there’s his track record as mayor of Chicago. Emanuel’s credentials on education or mental health policy may not be directly relevant for whether he’d make a good ambassador. But his handling of the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer does matter. As the nation grappled with police violence after Ferguson, Emanuel’s office worked to suppress police footage of the 17-year-old’s killing in October 2014 until well after Emanuel had secured a second term as mayor in the spring of 2015. He and other city leaders undermined public accountability when it mattered most, for personal political gain. That would—and should—be a serious impediment for anyone to secure a major federal post.
Beyond that, it’s unclear what exactly qualifies Rahm Emanuel for this position. Does he have any diplomatic experience? Not unless you count strong-arming various lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including one alleged incident when he yelled at a member of Congress while nude in the Capitol gym’s locker room. Does he have any experience in U.S.-Japan relations or in East Asian affairs more broadly? None that’s publicly known. It’s unclear whether Emanuel speaks Japanese; he has visited the country at least once.*
What Emanuel possesses in multitudes, however, is connections. And when it comes to securing certain ambassadorships from presidents of both parties, that seems to matter more than anything else. I’ve written previously about the unfortunate bipartisan tradition of presidents doling out high-level diplomatic posts to their political allies, their close friends, and worst of all, to their most lucrative donors. During his tenure, Donald Trump took this to the most logical—and most corrupt—conclusion. One of his picks, an Oregon hotelier turned donor turned diplomat named Gordon Sondland, tried to coerce the Ukrainian government into falsely smearing Biden on Trump’s behalf. (Sondland would later flip on Trump during the president’s first impeachment trial.)
Trump didn’t invent this Washington tradition. Among Obama’s choices for the Tokyo post was Caroline Kennedy, who also lacked diplomatic or subject-matter experience. As I’ve noted before, ambassadorships are slightly less vital in the modern age, thanks to advances in telecommunications. I’m aware of no other established democracy that routinely hands out major diplomatic posts to friends and donors of the head of state. It’s not like presidents regularly set aside a handful of federal judgeships or U.S. attorney positions for unqualified and underqualified nominees.
There were promising signs during Biden’s transition that he would chart a different path. He reportedly signaled to his top donors and political allies that he would be nominating far fewer of them, if any, for foreign diplomatic gigs. And he appeared set to draw more heavily upon the U.S. Foreign Service to staff ambassadorships in high-profile countries than his predecessors. Biden hasn’t formally named any ambassador nominees yet, so he may still follow through on this vision. If he doesn’t, the Senate retains the power to draw a line in the sand. And there may not be a better person to do it for than Rahm Emanuel.
* This article originally stated that it was unclear if Emanuel had been to Japan.