When Joe Biden left public office in 2017, he landed at the University of Pennsylvania, drawn by a global affairs center in his name and a newly created professor position — one that paid more than $911,000 over roughly 2½ years.
Now, Cohen and Penn’s president, Amy Gutmann, are reportedly in line for some of the most prestigious ambassadorships in Biden’s administration. Cohen, a Comcast executive, has long been said to be under consideration to become America’s representative to Canada. And Gutmann is expected to be nominated ambassador to Germany, as the German publication Der Spiegel first reported this week. The Biden administration shared the coming nomination with a top German official earlier this month, Reuters reported.
Allies call them a pair of smart, skilled, and deeply experienced professionals who would represent Biden well with foreign leaders. They have each long been part of Philadelphia’s elite civic circles, leading two of the city’s most powerful institutions.
But several foreign-policy experts said the nominations, if they happen, would continue a long-standing bipartisan tradition of using important foreign-affairs jobs to reward friends, political allies, and donors rather than expertise.
“No one would put a banker in charge of an aircraft carrier,” Barbara Stephenson, a former ambassador and career diplomat, said in an email. “No other advanced country routinely puts amateurs in charge of its embassies.”
“The ambassador is a personal representative of the president, so I can see a rationale for having someone very close to the president in that role,” said Dalibor Rohac, an expert on Europe and foreign policy at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “But I feel it has really degenerated in America to a situation where it is used as a system of patronage. … It does carry a cost for foreign policy.”
He said the need for expertise and experience is especially acute as the United States tries to rebuild ties with allies and take on Russia and China. Germany and Canada are among the country’s most significant partners.
“The stakes seem to be higher than usual,” Rohac said. “You need people who are on top of their game.”
Neither nomination has been made, so nothing is final, and both would require Senate confirmation. A White House official said Wednesday that only about 30% of Biden’s ambassador nominations are expected to go to people with political connections, fewer than in the Trump administration and in line with other presidents.
Spokespeople for Penn have remained silent about Gutmann even as the school’s president makes international headlines.
Gutmann, whose contract at Penn ends after next June, is a respected academic whose father fled Germany to escape the Holocaust. She helped recruit Biden to Penn, according to former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. The school created a new post, the Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor, and the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.
Steve Ricchetti, a senior Biden adviser, was briefly the center’s managing director and is now one of the administration’s point people on ambassador nominations. Cohen was chairman of the school’s board of trustees at the time.
Penn paid Biden $371,159 in 2017 and $540,484 in 2018 and the first five months of 2019, according to financial records he disclosed during his campaign, though that was a relatively small part of the millions he and his wife, Jill, earned after leaving the White House. His exact duties were unclear. He didn’t teach regular classes and mostly made big public appearances, including three Q-and-A sessions with Gutmann, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper.
Academic experts have said he was likely hired more for the prestige that could draw donors than his personal impact on campus.
If Gutmann ends up representing Biden in Berlin, Rohac said, she’ll be there at an important moment, as the United States encourages one of its closest European allies to confront China and Russia and exert more strategic leadership in Europe.
“Germany is not an easy post. It’s not something that is just going to involve socializing and entertaining and just having a good time,” Rohac said. “There is a substantive agenda to be attended to.”
Cohen, meanwhile, was listed as one of Biden’s top “bundlers” of campaign donations. His Mount Airy home has become a regular fund-raising stop for former President Barack Obama and then Biden.
If he becomes the ambassador to Canada, he would be the face of the administration in dealing with one of America’s largest trading partners, though one nursing frustration over a sometimes rocky relationship with the Trump administration. Cohen declined to comment this week, but he told The Inquirer last month that the nomination “really is hypothetical.”
Steven Cozen, a longtime Biden ally and donor from Philadelphia, said it makes sense for the president to want people close to him in such key positions. He said Gutmann and Cohen have the right skills for the jobs.
“He likes to have friends that he trusts that are of great talent in positions like this,” Cozen said. “He knows these people as persons, and that’s so much more important because the whole role is based on relationships.”
Most ambassador posts go to foreign service professionals, but many experts still chafe when some of the most prestigious jobs are handed to people whose main qualifications are political ties. It’s a long-standing practice. Donald Trump appointed inexperienced loyalists to key posts in Germany and the United Kingdom, who in turn created international embarrassments with their actions and words.
Stephenson, a former president of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents career foreign service professionals, said the “spoils system” should go.
“The U.S. is an extreme outlier among advanced countries in engaging in this practice,” she said. “There is a reason all these countries — competitors, allies alike — all send their best career diplomats to serve as ambassador to Washington.”
Neither she nor Rohac criticized Cohen or Gutmann personally.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen, said the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations gave about 30% of ambassadorships to campaign donors. That jumped to 44% under Trump.
Such political appointees usually get placed in friendly nations that require little diplomatic work or “places that are safe and elegant and wonderful places to live,” Holman said.
“This is a corrupt practice that we have not had any success at changing,” Holman said.
Ambassadorships are sometimes alluring to donors because they don’t come with the same level of scrutiny about financial entanglements as other top administration positions.
Cohen’s potential international departure would continue his trajectory as a master of behind-the-scenes politicking in increasingly broad arenas.
He was chief of staff when Rendell was Philadelphia mayor, helping pull the city away from the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1990s. Cohen has been a fixture in Philadelphia’s political, business, philanthropic, and educational worlds ever since, later becoming an executive vice president of Comcast.
He also became a consummate Washington insider for Comcast, leading high-stakes efforts such as securing regulatory approval for the company’s acquisition of NBCUniversal.
He has also stepped back from his role at Comcast, transitioning from executive vice president to senior adviser to CEO Brian Roberts.
Staff writer Jonathan Tannenwald contributed to this article.