Overview

The State Department interacts with the White House in a wide variety of ways, both formally and informally.  The Secretary of State traditionally serves as the senior foreign policy advisor to the President and meets regularly with him, as well as with the National Security Advisor and other senior foreign policy officials within the Executive Branch.  Similarly, other Department of State officers are in daily contact with counterparts on the President’s staff, particularly those working at the National Security Council (NSC).

The National Security Council (NSC), established in 1947 by President Harry S. Truman to assist in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy, is chaired by the President and includes the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the military advisor to the Council and the Director of National Intelligence is the intelligence advisor. 

Relations between the State Department and the NSC have varied considerably over the years, as each president has used the NSC in different ways and given the NSC staff varying levels of authority in their dealings with the Department of State and other agencies. NSC dominance of the relationship was greatest under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, when Henry Kissinger served from 1969 to 1975 as National Security Advisor.  During 1973-75 he served concurrently as Secretary of State, remaining in the latter position until 1977.

Besides the Secretary of State’s participation in meetings of the NSC, other senior and working level officials of the State Department are deeply involved in the formal sub-elements within the NSC structure.  Such bodies include the Deputies Committee (NSC/DC, of which the Deputy Secretary of State is a regular member) and the Policy Coordinating Committees (NSC/PCCs).  Interagency PCCs on Europe and Eurasia, Western Hemisphere, East Asia, South Asia, Near East and North Africa, and Africa are chaired by State Department officials at the Under Secretary or Assistant Secretary level, as is a PCC on International Development and Humanitarian Assistance.  Senior department officials take part in other PCCs established to address other functional topics.

In addition to assisting senior officers with NSC, DC and PCC meetings, Foreign Service Officers are often detailed to work in staff positions at the NSC.  These opportunities to work in the White House not only benefit the officers concerned but also help strengthen the State Department’s relationship with the Executive Office of the President.

Ambassadorial Appointment Process

The State Department supports the White House in nominating, preparing and providing on-going guidance to ambassadors, all of whom serve abroad as personal representatives of the President. This support ranges from assisting with appointments and helping the nominee understand financial and other disclosure requirements to arranging briefings on U.S. relations with the country of assignment.

Until passage of the Rogers Act of 1924 all ambassadors (then generally called “ministers”) of the United States were non-career political appointees.  However, since the Second World War the great majority of those positions have been filled by career FSOs.  In recent years approximately 70% of U.S. ambassadors come from the ranks of the professional Foreign Service, while the other 30% are non-career appointees. Nominations of non-career ambassadors are made by the White House.  Career officers are nominated by the White House upon recommendation by the Department of State.

Once the President has made his selection and the receiving country has given its approval of the proposed candidate, the appointee must then appear for a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  After receiving a positive vote from that Committee, he or she must be formally approved by a vote in the full Senate.  State Department officials assist all nominees, whether FSOs or non-career appointees, in this process.

Whether from the Foreign Service or elsewhere, few of the individuals selected for ambassadorships have a close personal relationship with the President, and many non-career appointees first come to the attention of the White House through recommendations from Capital Hill or the political parties.  Depending on the availability and priorities of Committee members, an appointee may wait weeks, months or even longer for his or her nomination hearing.  The actual hearings, however, usually are relatively brief, with the nominee typically being asked either general questions about the prospective country or highly specific questions of immediate concern to the Senator posing them.  If advance notice of such queries has not been given, the nominee may make a commitment to secure the answer as soon as possible.  

If there is deadlock regarding the approval of a presidential appointee, one of two outcomes is possible: the vote on the nomination may be left indefinitely in limbo, or the President may wait until Congress is in no longer in session and make a “recess appointment” that by-passes the Senatorial confirmation process and will be valid for a period not to exceed the current Congressional term. Once a new ambassador arrives in his or her country of assignment and takes charge of the U.S. mission, he or she is expected not to engage in official diplomatic business until making a formal presentation of presidential “credentials” to the host country.

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Non-Career Ambassadors

The appointment of non-career (sometimes referred to as Schedule-C, excepted service or political appointee) ambassadors has been a subject of perennial discussion and occasional heated controversy.  Defenders of the practice point to the importance of having ambassadorships, especially in key countries, go to individuals known to the President and who are therefore best qualified to serve authoritatively as a “personal representative.”  On the other hand, critics argue that career professionals usually have much stronger substantive knowledge of foreign affairs and thus are, on balance, more effective in advancing U.S. interests abroad.   All parties generally agree that certain non-career appointees (e.g., Ellsworth Bunker, David Bruce, Claire Booth Luce, Senator Mike Mansfield) proved to be superb representatives.  Most also concur that such ambassadors should have had previous experience in foreign affairs, and that they will perform more effectively if they have a smooth working relationship with their FSO deputies. 

The term “political appointee” is sometimes used pejoratively to suggest that a person has no significant qualifications for the position in question.  Although such a characterization was certainly valid for most 19th century appointments of the U.S. Diplomatic and Consular Services, it less frequently applies to current selections.  In fact, few non-career appointees are politicians, but instead tend to be men and women from the business sector who have supported the incumbent administration.  Others have achieved prominence in one of the professions, or have close personal relationships with the President or other senior political figures.

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Other Non-Career Appointees

In addition to choosing the Secretary of State and ambassadorial appointments, the President will appoint substantial numbers of employees to other senior positions in the State Department.  The Deputy Secretary (The Obama administration added a second Deputy Secretary of State position for Management and Resources), the six Under Secretaries and the Assistant Secretaries (AS) at the bureau level are among those requiring Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation.  Though most of the very senior positions go to non-career appointees, FSOs usually fill some of the AS slots (and most Deputy Assistant Secretary positions), and an FSO has traditionally served as Under Secretary for Political Affairs, the third highest ranking position in the Department.

In addition to appointments that must gain Senate approval, many non-career positions within the State Department are filled by the White House or at the discretion of the Secretary of State.  Such presidential appointed slots are identified in the “Plum Book” (officially titled “United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions”), published by the Government Printing Office every four years. Successful advancement of any administration’s agenda requires competent non-career appointments at all levels.  Within the State Department relations between Schedule C appointees and the career service (whether FSOs or Civil Service employees) have usually, but not always, been productive, which each recognizing and profiting from the perspectives and abilities of the other.  Every four years, since 1988 former FSO John Trattner, of the Center for Excellence in Government, has offered useful advice to Presidential appointees in government “plum” jobs in his “Prune Book.”

book(see Trattner, John H.  The 2004 Prune Book: Top Management Challenges for Presidential Appointees.  Washington, DC: Brookings, 2004)

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Presidential Travel

The State Department, through its Office of Presidential Travel Support, makes all administrative arrangements for overseas trips of the President of the United States (POTUS), the Vice President and the First Lady.  It cooperates closely with White House Advance personnel, as well as with embassies and consulates abroad, to meet the requirements set for by the responsible White House staffers.  These duties include preparing briefing materials, helping develop scenarios for official and unofficial activities during the visit and arranging all the administrative details required to make the visit proceed smoothly.  Literally thousands of people are involved in presidential travel, including communications specialists, security officers, transportation facilitators and a full plane-load of White House correspondents.  A POTUS visit represents an important milestone in any country’s relations with the United States.  It is also an unforgettable event in the life of the U.S. mission hosting the visit.

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