How Huntsman's affiliation with Obama could help him
They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer. And President Obama has tried to do just that, naming former rival Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State and--in a move seen by many as particularly shrewd at the time--appointing former Republican Utah governor Jon Huntsman as ambassador to China.
But banishing the man (whom Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe said was the only Republican who concerned him) may not keep his ambitions for the White House at bay. Huntsman resigned from his post in Beijing Monday, saying he will be returning to the United States this spring. Between the powerful political advisers he's amassed and the house he's bought in Washington, the rumor mill is abuzz over Huntsman's potential candidacy.
Pundits cite two major obstacles for Huntsman, a moderate Republican with both foreign policy and big-business chops: his religion and his affiliation with Obama. The first may not be such a big deal--Huntsman is a Mormon, but so is Mitt Romney, and voters seem to be warming up to the idea of a Mormon president over time.
But the other issue presents an interesting dilemma for any leader. How do you burnish your own credentials while criticizing your former boss? And can a candidate seem leader-like if he also appears ungrateful for the chances he's been given?
There is no doubt the issue will be a tricky one for Huntsman. At a time when an angry and far right wing of the party helped sway many midterm election outcomes in 2010, Huntsman will have to appeal to Republican primary voters not just on his agenda and values, but on his ability as a moderate Republican to appeal to independent voters and therefore beat the president. To do that, he's likely to find himself speaking out against the president even earlier than some of his primary opponents, which could very well make him appear unappreciative for the opportunity he was given, a quality most don't associate with leadership.
That said, if he is able to strike the right balance of gratitude and respectful disagreement, I don't think Huntsman's affiliation with the Obama administration will hurt him much. In fact, it could even help. Huntsman will be in the unique position across the Republican field to say he's witnessed the administration's goings on from the inside, and here's what needs changing.
In addition, Huntsman's distance from Washington over the last two years--what pundits saw as a crafty move on Obama's part to keep Huntsman out of the spotlight--could work just as well to help him. While disagreeing with the president about issues related to China could get complicated for Huntsman, his Beijing post will help Huntsman distance himself from Obama's far more controversial domestic policies, such as health-care reform and stimulus spending. When foreign policy does come up, Huntsman may not be the incumbent president, but he'll be able to throw the "I've been there" card down at any time, thanks to his on-the-ground experience.
If Huntsman does actually run, he will have formidable foes in the primary better able to rally the party's more conservative and rural voters. But in an age when civility seems ascendant, and when many voters jaded by the heated rhetoric in Washington are looking for someone who can work across the aisle, Huntsman's Achilles heel--a forced position of gratitude to the president--could also end up being his secret weapon.
February 1, 2011; 5:36 AM ET |
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