Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Popular wisdom, at least since February, tells us that Jon Huntsman, Jr., is now a threat to President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
On January 31, Huntsman tendered his resignation as U.S. Ambassador to China, a position for which he was tapped by the current president. In 2009, Huntsman resigned as the Republican Governor of Utah in order to join the Obama administration in this capacity. During his tenure as Ambassador, reports indicated that Huntsman and the president got along well, enjoying a solid working relationship despite coming from opposite parties. His term as Ambassador does not officially end until April, but Huntsman got into hot water in February by attending an anti-government protest in Beijing and getting caught on video.
Now that the band is breaking up, Obama’s camp is worrying—quite publicly—that Huntsman may go solo.
Sources close to Huntsman have said that he's leaving his post with an eye toward the White House. The president himself has joked in news conferences about facing Huntsman in the 2012 general election, a possibility that began looming as early as 2008. Many have speculated that that’s part of the reason Obama gave Huntsman an appointment, keeping his enemies close. In those same conferences, Obama has lauded the ambassador for his cooperation with his administration and its goals—a backhanded compliment in GOP circles, as the president’s staff attempts to pop the Huntsman bubble before it gets too big.
Huntsman, for his part, hasn’t said anything definite about a 2012 run. Neither has anyone else in the Republican pool, although it’s worth noting that Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney don’t have a public office from which to resign in preparation. By that measure, Huntsman has made his intentions more clear than anybody else in the ring. What’s more, reports indicate that Huntsman talked about the possibility of a run with none other than former candidate John McCain as recently as December.
This video, of Huntsman’s speech at the GOP convention, shows his evident pride at creating an enormous tax cut “the largest in the history of our state”, though he also gets big cheers for increasing funding for education. “The power of the free market system will take our state to heights never before seen.” he says.
In past political lives, Huntsman has advocated for large tax cuts, streamlining government operations, and private-sector health care expansion, all easy Republican stances. But Huntsman has also taken some moderate positions on social and environmental issues, supporting civil unions for homosexuals and throwing his weight behind a regional cap-and-trade bill that was opposed by many in Utah's conservative state legislature.
Huntsman even endorsed President Obama’s stimulus plan in 2009, which could be a big problem in the Republican primary. He has credited stimulus funds with allowing Utah to "build our core capacity to attract brainpower, and to build our industries of tomorrow around innovation." For a conservative, Huntsman appears surprisingly amenable to government spending in lean years. "Even when times are bad," he has said, "we've invested in engineering and our science and technology undertaking." Facing a large state budget gap at the beginning of his second term, Huntsman chose to dig into Utah's "rainy day" fund rather than make cuts to education.
Those bumps aside, Hunstman enjoys the distinct advantage of having far more experience with international politics than any other GOP hopeful. He speaks Mandarin and has spent the last two years living in and working with America’s largest debtor and competitor.
Huntsman’s chances are probably as good as anyone else’s right now. The soon-to-be-former ambassador will remain in China through April, and it’s expected that he will form an exploratory committee upon returning to the United States in May. An official announcement would come in June or July.