Obama taps potential rival to go to China

President Obama keeps his friend close and Saturday he announced he is keeping a potential enemy even closer, naming Republican Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to be his ambassador to China.

Huntsman has consistently been named as a top candidate to challenge Obama in 2012, and he served as national co-chairman of Obama's 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJuan Williams: Obama's dire warnings about right-wing media Democrats' squabbling vindicates Biden non-campaign McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE (Ariz.).

The governor has surprised many in recent months by coming out in favor of gay rights and tacking to the middle on a number of social issues, shocking many in political circles because of the extremely conservative make-up of his state.

Obama, speaking in the Diplomatic Room of the White House with Huntsman at his side, praised the governor for putting "country ahead of party" and exhibiting "a willingness to move behind the old ideology and stale debates" that Obama says hinder meaningful change.

Huntsman said he was surprised by the president's decision and he never expected to serve as ambassador to China, but a "call from the president changed that."

The governor was recently reelected to a second term in a landslide rout, but he said "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 rise of the obligation."

"Gov. Huntsman’s long service to the country also prepares him well to be frank with our Chinese friends when we disagree on human rights, democracy and other matters," the White House said Saturday before the president's announcement.

Huntsman served as ambassador to Singapore in 1992, when he was named the youngest U.S. ambassador in more than 100 years, according to the White House.

Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Huntsman has twice been unanimously confirmed to be ambassador by the Senate.