Smart politics: Obama names Huntsman ambassador to China

By picking the Utah governor, the president sidelined a potentially strong opponent in 2012, but the Republican will get a boost, too.

By Alex Koppelman

Published May 16, 2009 6:35PM (EDT)

In a move that will likely make both men stronger politically -- and removes one of the most dangerous of the potential Republican candidates for president in 2012 -- President Obama has chosen Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. as his ambassador to China.

The administration is now doing its best to shift attention away from the political aspects of the decision, but White House aides were pleased with themselves for pulling this off. Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, had said recently that Huntsman was someone worth fearing in 2012, "the one person in that party who might be a potential presidential candidate."

Huntsman really does look like quite a formidable future candidate -- he's a popular governor who's been positioning himself as a moderate recently, and he has a family fortune to help him campaign. But he and his advisors were probably smart enough to look around and decide that 2012 would just not be his year. The race for the Republican nomination would not have been an easy one, as the party's continuing constriction has left it dominated by its most conservative elements, and the base's mood right now doesn't favor moderates. And if Huntsman did make it to the general election, well, the prospect of taking on Team Obama can't be all that appealing for anyone right now.

The ambassadorship, on the other hand, offers Huntsman the chance to bide his time until the political climate is more favorable. Plus, the job allows him to stay in the public eye, at least to a certain degree, and gives him the opportunity to burnish some already strong foreign policy credentials.

Under President George W. Bush, Huntsman served as deputy U.S. trade ambassador; he was ambassador to Singapore -- the youngest U.S. ambassador in more than 100 years -- from 1992 to 1993.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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