ORLANDO—When President Obama nominated Jon Huntsman to be his ambassador to China in 2009, he lauded the then-Republican governor’s expertise in trade issues, his prior diplomatic experience, and fluency in Mandarin. What Obama didn’t know was that he wouldn’t have the benefit of Huntsman's service for very long.
In an interview with National Journal after opening his national campaign headquarters here, Huntsman said he always intended to cut his tenure in Beijing short because his seven children were split between the United States and China. But he insisted his decision to run for president wasn’t part of his plan until recently. As of about six months ago, he planned to return to the private sector, he said.
“We decided at the very outset that we would give it about two years,’’ Huntsman said. “We lived overseas before, and we knew it would be a hardship…. We gave it everything we had for two years and left it better than we found it.’’
Huntsman emphasized that his intention to resign had nothing to do with his political ambitions. “Heavens no,’’ he said. “Absolutely not…. That was a last-minute decision.’’
The question of when Huntsman started preparing for a White House bid is a sensitive one because federal law prohibits administration officials from engaging in politics. In his absence, political operatives formed a committee to start laying the groundwork for a potential campaign. Huntsman publicly announced in late January that he would step down at the end of April. Less than two months later, he made his bid official.
Asked if he informed the president that he would resign as ambassador after two years, Huntsman said: “You don’t have those specific conversations. You serve as long as you’re able to. It’s open-ended for the most part.’’
In his remarks at the White House the day he was nominated as ambassador, 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…. So, Mr. President, I humbly accept your call to service, and I understand that doing so will carry with it some unique challenges.’’
Huntsman’s formal campaign launch comes as his rivals are frantically trying to boost their totals for the three-month fundraising period that ends on June 30. Huntsman declined to reveal the amount of his own money he had invested in the campaign, but put the amount at $1 million to $2 million “in rough terms.’’ Huntsman’s father started a chemical company that has made him one of the richest men in the world.
In a sign of the Democratic party’s wariness toward Huntsman, he is the only Republican candidate who merited a response from President Obama after his official announcement. As he has rolled out his campaign this week, Democratic party leaders have been attacking him for changing positions on some issues, including cap-and-trade limits on the carbon emissions that cause global warming.
“I’m just delighted that we’re relevant enough to get dumped on,’’ Huntsman quipped, adding that he didn’t see the president’s statement on his candidacy. “I take it as a compliment.’’