Obama Taps Utah Governor To Be China Envoy

President Obama reached across the political border to fill a key post Saturday. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is in line to be the next ambassador to China. He co-chaired Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign and had been mentioned as a Republican White House possibility for 2012. Robert Gehrke, who covers Gov. Huntsman for the Salt Lake Tribune, talks with host Rebecca Roberts about Obama's pick.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

President Obama announced his choice for a key diplomatic post today. He nominated Utah Governor Jon Huntsman to be ambassador to China. That selection has diplomatic implications inside Washington, too. Governor Huntsman is a Republican. He co-chaired John McCain's presidential campaign, and he's even been mentioned as a White House possibility for 2012.

He appeared today, alongside his new Democratic boss.

Governor JON HUNTSMAN (Republican, Utah): 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.

ROBERTS: Robert Gehrke covers Governor Huntsman for the Salt Lake Tribune, and he is on the line with me now. Welcome.

Mr. ROBERT GEHRKE (Reporter, Salt Lake Tribune): Thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: Governor Huntsman has been an ambassador before. He served in Singapore under George H. W. Bush. And I understand his roots in China are actually pretty deep.

Mr. GEHRKE: When he was a young man, he served a Mormon mission in the region. In 1999, he and his wife adopted a baby from China. Her name is Gracie Mei, she was in the Zhuangzu Province. So, you know, and then in 2001, President Bush appointed him as the U.S. trade representative, deputy U.S. trade representative covering that region. So, he negotiated trade agreements with China, with Korea, with other nations in the region.

He was scheduled, actually, to go to China next week with a group of Western governors to discuss climate change, alternative energy sources, that sort of thing. And there were going to be some provincial governors coming out here in June. That mission got cancelled because of the concerns about swine flu.

It's a nation he's keenly interested in. If you ever ask him about what's the political dynamics there, you could be in for a long answer.

ROBERTS: Governor Huntsman was just re-elected last fall. Is he pretty popular in Utah?

Mr. GEHRKE: Well, yeah. When he was re-elected last fall, he won re-election by the largest margin in state history. And his approval rating in our January poll had him about 83 percent approval rating. And in the back of everybody's mind there was always this thought that he might not be serving out his second term, though.

ROBERTS: Because he had national ambitions?

Mr. GEHRKE: Because he had national ambitions. You know, when he was, as you mentioned, he was the chairman of Senator McCain's presidential committee. And there was thought if Senator McCain won that office that he would, you know, potentially have a cabinet post. In the early days of the Obama administration, he had meetings with Rahm Emanuel and others in the administration, discussing potential cabinet positions. He had some interest in the Energy Department position.

You know, and then this ambassadorship to China was one of those that was always rumored. But as, you know, one political insider told me, you know, it's sort of like if you eat cheeseburgers your whole life, you're not surprised you have a heart attack, but you're always surprised when it comes.

ROBERTS: Robert Gehrke covers the Utah State House for the Salt Lake Tribune. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. GEHRKE: All right. Thank you.

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