By Russell Berman - 02/02/11 12:31 PM EST
Politicians often go to great lengths to steer clear of controversy, but for Jon Huntsman Jr., nothing has worked quite so well as an 18-month jaunt to Beijing.
In his tenure as ambassador to China, Huntsman, a Republican, has carefully avoided either praising or criticizing the Obama administration on virtually any foreign or domestic issue beyond his diplomatic purview.
A review of public records shows Huntsman has given only a handful of interviews to U.S. media outlets and made relatively few official statements that have drawn notice in the States. When he has spoken publicly, Huntsman has steered clear of the hot-button issues that have roiled domestic politics during Obama's first two years; he has taken no public position on his administration’s efforts to overhaul healthcare and climate-change regulation, nor has he weighed in substantively on a Tea Party movement that barely existed when he departed for China.
Obama nominated Huntsman in May 2009, and he took office that August after unanimous confirmation by the Senate.
In November of that year, Huntsman flatly declined even to assess Obama’s performance as president.
“I'll take the truthful way out,” Huntsman told CNBC. “I'm a diplomat. I represent the United States of America. I don't do politics. Maybe in another life, this would be a fair conversation, but right now, that's not something that I'm going to wade into.”
Huntsman’s statements during this period are sure to be dissected should he mount what would be one of the most unconventional presidential campaigns in modern political history. He would face the daunting challenge of making a vigorous argument against Obama’s domestic policies while defending the administration’s efforts abroad as well as his own service in a critical foreign posting.
“He has a role as the ambassador to one of if not the most important country that we have to deal with as a nation,” said GOP consultant John Weaver, who has advised Huntsman in the past. “It’s probably not within his place to make comments about anything else while he’s in that position.”
By submitting a resignation letter three months in advance, Huntsman is plainly not quitting in protest of any presidential policy or decision. On China, Huntsman and Obama have spoken highly of each other. In November 2009, Huntsman told reporters he was “very, very proud of our president” after meetings with the Chinese, and Obama recently described Huntsman as an “outstanding ambassador” and said he “couldn’t be happier” with his work.
With Huntsman remaining in the administration through April, any efforts to launch a presidential campaign would occur entirely without his involvement until he returns. Weaver, a former top aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said in an interview Tuesday that he is part of a “pretty ad hoc” group of supporters urging Huntsman to run. “No one has talked with him directly about the presidential race,” Weaver said. He added that the last conversation he had with Huntsman was “in a holiday card.”
If he runs for the GOP nomination, Huntsman would have to win over a Republican primary electorate that has moved decisively to the right in recent years, stoked by Tea Party anger at the Obama agenda. Before accepting the China assignment, he labeled himself “a moderating voice” within the GOP, and he has broken with many conservatives on climate-change policy and by supporting civil unions for gay couples.
As ambassador, Huntsman has continued to cite climate change as a pressing problem, despite skepticism among many conservatives of the science behind global warming. And in a September speech in China, he spoke of the need to “keep our borders as open as possible” and reduce waiting times for foreign students looking to enter the United States — a position that could be at odds with Republicans who want to limit immigration.
Huntsman is expected to explain his decision to work for Obama, as he has before, by saying he responded to a call to serve his country. “The commander in chief asked,” he told Charlie Rose in a December interview, describing himself as “a traditionalist.” “And if you can make a unique contribution in that particular job, hardship though it might be, you stand up and serve.”
Weaver said the choice is one that most voters, even those opposed to Obama, would understand. “Sure, there are going to be people who disagree about that, but by and large people would say, ‘Yes. you should do that,’ ” he said.
Huntsman had been seen by most political observers as more likely to run for president in 2016, when he would avoid the awkwardness of challenging a president in whose administration he served. But the ambassador hinted he might make an earlier bid, declining, in a December Newsweek interview, to rule out a 2012 run.
The White House has given little indication that it was caught off guard or otherwise angered by the buzz surrounding Huntsman in recent weeks. Obama last month easily deflected a question about the ambassador’s presidential aspirations during a joint press conference with President Hu Jintao of China. With Huntsman sitting only a few feet away, Obama praised his service and quipped, “I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.”
Weaver said Huntsman had said, when accepting the ambassadorship, that he intended to serve about two years, and the White House had been informed as early as last November or December that he wanted to return to the U.S. by late spring.
Huntsman won praise on Tuesday from Utah’s senior senator, Orrin Hatch (R). “He’s a very attractive, photogenic, articulate spokesperson who, if he decides to [run], would be a formidable force,” Hatch told The Hill. “I know him very well; I like him personally.”
Hatch said he didn’t think Huntsman’s decision to work for Obama would be “a minus” with GOP primary voters; he might even be able to plausibly spin his departure as a break with the administration. “They might raise the issue,” Hatch said. “It’s easy for him to say, ‘I left the most important diplomatic post in our country because I disagree with the Obama administration.’ That shows some spunk, it shows some individual choice and it shows that he’s capable of making big decisions.”