WASHINGTON — President Obama on Saturday reached into the Republican ranks for a key foreign policy position in his administration, tapping Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to be ambassador to China.
"Given the breadth of issues at stake in our relationship with China, this ambassadorship is as important as any in the world," Obama said in announcing the appointment at the White House with Huntsman at his side.
Though Huntsman has served as an ambassador to Singapore, speaks fluent Mandarin and has an adopted Chinese daughter, Obama noted that his selection of "not only a Republican, but a Republican who co-chaired my opponent's campaign for the presidency" wouldn't be the easiest move to explain to some people.
Huntsman also noted the unusual political circumstances.
"Nor did I expect, as national co-chair of Sen. [John] McCain's presidential campaign, to be called into action by the person who beat us," Huntsman said.
But Obama called Huntsman "the kind of leader who always puts country ahead of party," whose knowledge and experience prepared him for the challenging job.
Echoing Obama's comment about setting aside party differences, Huntsman 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 beginning of the obligation to rise to the challenge."
Once confirmed by the Senate, as is expected, Huntsman will play a key role in U.S. efforts to recruit Chinese help on several fronts: responding to global economic troubles, addressing climate change and stopping the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
Huntsman also will have to address human rights in China, a long-standing U.S. concern, and video piracy, a matter of importance to Hollywood.
"With a vast population, a growing economy and far-reaching influence, China will have a crucial role in confronting all the major challenges that face Asia and the world in the years ahead," Obama said.
Huntsman's appointment also could help Obama, who has struggled to win the support of congressional Republicans for various initiatives.
The appointment was a surprise because Huntsman has been mentioned as a potential challenger to Obama in 2012.
"It's hard to run for president from Beijing," said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council.
"With the appointment, President Obama takes a promising GOP figure out of partisan politics, at least for a time," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "What's more, the president does so in a way that bulks up his bipartisan credentials. Smart move."
Don Kettl, incoming dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, said Obama was fragmenting the Republicans.
"He's pulling key moderates into his camp, and each step is allowing the remaining Republican base to slip further to the right," Kettl said. "His bet is that the Republicans can't win, in 2010 or in 2012, without finding their way back to the middle. . . . It's getting increasingly lonely being a moderate Republican. And that's vastly enhancing Obama's position."
Huntsman, 49, who won a second term as governor in November, has drawn criticism from party members for his support of same-sex civil unions. He also has been critical of his party, telling ABC News last month, "Instead of just kind of grousing and complaining, it would do us all a whole lot of good if we actually started engaging directly in finding compromises."
His selection drew praise from members of both parties, nonetheless.
"You probably couldn't get a better ambassador to China out of central casting," said Sean Spicer, who served as assistant U.S. trade representative in the George W. Bush administration.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a fellow Utah Republican, called Huntsman's qualifications "tailor-made for this important position on the world stage."
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the selection "demonstrates President Obama's commitment to a bipartisan foreign policy."
"Gov. Huntsman's Chinese language capabilities [and] diplomatic, political and entrepreneurial experience make him a solid choice to navigate the complexities of the U.S.-China relationship, including various human rights, trade and security issues," Berman added.
Huntsman, born in California, served as a White House staff assistant to President Reagan, ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush and deputy trade representative under President George W. Bush.
The son of Jon M. Huntsman Sr., a Utah multimillionaire and philanthropist, Huntsman Jr. and his wife, Mary Kaye, have seven children, including two adopted daughters, from India and China.