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Obama reaches across political divide for envoy

President Barack Obama's choice for ambassador to China speaks fluent Mandarin and has served as an ambassador in Asia.

world Updated: May 17, 2009 07:13 IST

President Barack Obama's choice for ambassador to China speaks fluent Mandarin and has served as an ambassador in Asia.

While that might make Jon Huntsman seem like a natural fit for the job, he also happens to be governor of the Republican bastion of Utah.

By choosing him, the Democratic president reached across the political divide and may have sidelined for now a possibly formidable White House challenger in 2012.

Obama said he made the appointment "mindful of its extraordinary significance" and the issues at stake, including the global economic crisis, the environment, public health, human rights and North Korea and Pakistan.

"Given the breadth of issues at stake in our relationship with China, this ambassadorship is as important as any in the world because the United States will best be able to deal effectively with global challenges in the 21st century by working in concert with China," Obama said.

Huntsman, 49, is fluent in Mandarin Chinese from his days as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan. He previously served as U.S. ambassador to Singapore and as a deputy U.S. trade ambassador. As ambassador, Huntsman could play a critical role in getting China to sign onto a new international agreement to curb the emissions blamed for global warming. The Obama administration has said it is willing to enter into a treaty, but that participation by China _ the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases _ could influence the success of any global pact and whether U.S. lawmakers will ratify the agreement.

Huntsman's positions on the environment and other issues have led some to consider him a potential contender for president
in 2012. He signed an initiative that would set a regional cap-and-trade effort to reduce global warming. In a 2006 speech at Shanghai Normal University, Huntsman spoke of the need for China and the U.S. to work together on environmental issues.

"The United States and China must be good examples and stewards of the Earth. We must match economic progress with environmental stewardship. The effects of industrialization are felt worldwide," Huntsman said then.

John Weaver, a one-time senior strategist for John McCain's presidential campaign who now advises Huntsman, said the governor put country ahead of personal partisan interest. Huntsman was national co-chairman of McCain's failed bid against Obama. "It's no more complicated than that, though it is so unusual in Washington everyone has to take a magnifying glass to it," Weaver said after Obama introduced Huntsman in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room.

"He was asked by the president to serve in a major diplomatic post, in a mission with a country most important to our economy, in dealing with Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. Jon is uniquely qualified and thus you don't turn your nation down," Weaver said. Obama said he knew Huntsman's nomination "wouldn't be the easiest decision to explain to some members of his party." But Obama said Huntsman was "the kind of leader who always puts country ahead of party and is always willing to sacrifice on behalf of our nation."

Elected to his second term in November, Huntsman said he wasn't looking for a new job and didn't expect "to be called into action" by McCain's winning rival.

"But I grew up understanding that the most basic responsibility one has is service to country," he said, standing with Obama as his family looked on. "When the president of the United States asks you to step up and serve in a capacity like this, that to me is the end of the conversation and the beginning of the obligation to rise to the challenge."

Huntsman has upset the Republican conservative base by supporting gay civil unions. His appointment, which requires Senate approval, gives him a chance to burnish his credentials and position himself as a viable presidential contender in 2016, if Obama appears to be a strong candidate for a second term in 2012.

Huntsman will be 56 in 2016, young enough to handle the rigors of a national political campaign. Republican strategists say serving as U.S. envoy to China will only improve Huntsman's reputation. LaVarr Webb, a Republican strategist in Utah, said the appointment is a plus for Huntsman. He said Huntsman became a long shot for 2012 after his headline-making call for the Republican party to moderate its tone if it wants to rebound from 2008 election losses.

"Clearly Gov. Huntsman does have major political ambitions and serving as ambassador to China certainly gives him foreign policy credentials," Webb said.

Eric Hyer, a China expert and political scientist at Brigham Young University, said the decision surprised him because no one seeks the presidency from an ambassador's post.

"So he might serve for four years and then come back and run for president. But can you run against the guy who hired you?" Hyer said.

Huntsman made a name for himself in Utah by advocating a moderate agenda in one of the most conservative states. He drew the most attention for supporting civil unions, despite backing a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that passed in 2004.

Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, has described Huntsman as a Republican who "seems to understand the party has
to adjust _ not stubbornly believe that everything is OK and it is the country that has to change."

Before becoming governor in 2005, Huntsman made millions as chairman and chief executive of his family business, Huntsman Corp., a global chemical manufacturer with more than 12,000 employees worldwide. Revenues last year exceeded $10 billion.

Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, have seven children, including adopted daughters from China and India. Huntsman dropped out of high school to play in a rock band, and spends his spare time playing in a band and mountain biking. He also rides a motorcycle and is a fan of motocross.

Jeff Bader, Obama's senior adviser on Asia, knew Huntsman from when they both worked in the U.S. Trade Representative's office, and he contacted Huntsman about a month ago to discuss becoming ambassador to China, according to the White House.

Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, followed up two weeks ago. Obama made an offer on May 5, and Huntsman accepted. The two then met last Saturday in the Oval Office when Huntsman was in town for the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, also a Republican, would become governor until a special election in 2010.