In an unusual Saturday announcement broadcast live on some cable networks, Obama acknowledged that Huntsman’s decision might not be easy for him to explain to the Republican Party.
And Huntsman said he, as a former national co-chairman for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, never expected “to be called into action by the person who beat us,” but added that "When the president of the United States asks you 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."
The move is freighted with political intrigue. Huntsman, who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, quickly emerged after November as one of the leading moderate GOP voices.
Huntsman is often mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012, although some of his advisers think the party's primary voters will be more prepared to accept his moderate views in 2016 if the party suffers a 1964-like cataclysm at the polls in 2012.
While conservative on social issues, Huntsman takes more centrist positions on the environment and gay rights. He shocked the Republican Party last year by announcing support for civil unions. He supported a regional cap-and-trade effort to reduce global warming, and has called on his party not to reject science showing that climate change is real.
In contrast to other Republican governors, he accepted his state’s allotment from the economic stimulus package – and, in fact, said in a February interview with POLITICO that $787 billion wasn’t large enough.
He was also critical of the Republican leadership in Congress, saying “we will be irrelevant as a party until we become the part of solutions and until we become the party or preeminence.”
Obama's political gurus were watching Huntsman. Campaign manager David Plouffe described Huntsman this month as "the one person in that party who might be a potential presidential candidate."
The choice helps Obama burnish his bipartisan credentials as his efforts to work across party lines in Congress continue to run into trouble.
Attempting to shift discussion of the nomination away from its political implications, the White House provided reporters with an explanation about 15 minutes ahead of the announcement of why Obama chose Huntsman, stressing the need for a vigorous relationship with China if the U.S. expects to stem the financial crisis:
“The president knows that Governor Huntsman has respect for China’s proud traditions; understands what it will take to make America more competitive in the 21st century; and will be an unstinting advocate for Americas interests and ideas, including North Korea,” the statement read. “Governor 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.”
At the annoucement, Huntsman said in Mandarin and then in English, a Chinese saying: "Together we work. Together we progress."
Huntsman was apparently not the first person Obama considered for the post. Foreign Policy’s The Cable blog reported in April that several people had turned down the job, including former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Obama’s transition chief John Podesta.
Huntsman also wasn't a likely choice, given his strong Republican ties. The blog did not include Huntsman on a speculative list of nominees, including retired admiral Bill Owens, economic adviser Laura D’Andrea Tyson, and former Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who endorsed Obama during the presidential campaign.
Still, his credentials for the post are solid.
Hntsman, 49, served a Mormon mission in Taiwan. The governor and his wife, Mary Kaye, adopted a daughter, Gracie Mei, from China in 1999. In 2006, he led a trade mission to China "because of their prominence on the world stage and the way in which they are growing so rapidly," he told the Deseret Morning News of Salt Lake City.
He served as a deputy assistant secretary of the Commerce Department’s Trade Development Bureau under former President George H.W. Bush, who appointed him as Singapore ambassador in June 1992. Huntsman was identified in news reports at the time as a political donor, bundling contributions from different people for Bush’s reelection.
Huntsman also took a role in President George W. Bush's administration, serving as Deputy U.S. Trade Ambassador from 2001 to 2003.
During last year's Republican primaries, he endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), while his father — businessman Jon M. Huntsman Sr. — endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. It was a politically shrewd move by the son, because the family was covered regardless of which candidate went on to be the nominee. And Huntsman advisers calculated that Romney would be unlikely to install a fellow Mormon in his Cabinet.
Huntsman bundled more than $500,000 in campaign contributions for McCain, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The move has political ripple effects for both parties, giving Democrats one less potential challenger to worry about, and elevating the prospects for Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R).
Viewed purely through the lens of 2012 politics, the move looks like political genius by the White House: It’s like John Edwards or John Kerry joining the Bush administration in 2001.
Ambassador to China is a more substantive job than many postings because of the national-security issues. George H.W. Bush, the future president, held the job from 1974 to 1975.
Hunstman will be replaced in Utah by Lieutenant Governor Gary Herbert until a special election in 2010. Joe Demma, Herbert's chief of staff, stressed the likely new governor's right-wing bona fides, telling the Salt Lake Tribune, "Global warming needs to be realized before anyone talks about it, the science is not all there," and that "Gary Herbert puts question marks on things that the governor has put periods on."