CHICAGO — Amid heightened speculation that he may challenge President Barack Obama in 2012, the White House confirmed Monday that Jon Huntsman will leave his post as ambassador to China in the coming months.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Huntsman, the Republican former governor of Utah, has told administration officials that he "plans to leave during the first part of this year." White House staff had no information about his future plans, but Huntsman still has Obama's confidence, Gibbs said.
"When the president picked him in 2009, it was because we believed and continue to believe he brings a broad range of experience to an extremely important ambassadorial post with one of our most important relationships in the world. The president continues to believe that," Gibbs said.
He added that Obama and "the American people expect that somebody that holds the post of ambassador from the United States to China will dedicate their full energy and time to that position."
"We believe that Ambassador Huntsman believes that as well," Gibbs concluded.
The fact that Huntsman accepted the appointment from Obama in 2009 surprised many who thought he harbored presidential aspirations of his own — and that joining the Democratic administration ruled out such an effort for the near future.
But reports now indicate that Huntsman is actively exploring a 2012 campaign, assembling a team of advisers who could rapidly mount a national campaign.
Obama was asked about Huntsman's plans at a news conference earlier this month with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and he offered praise mixed with a political reality check.
"I couldn't be happier with the ambassador's service, and I'm sure he will be very successful in whatever endeavors he chooses in the future," Obama said, before adding with a smile: "I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary."
As he arrived for the state dinner that evening, Huntsman told reporters he was "loyal to our president and our country."
According to Politico, new White House chief of staff William Daley joked at an off-the-record press dinner this weekend that Huntsman is called "the Manchurian Candidate" inside the White House. He also echoed Obama's joke.
"I want Jon to know that the president has no hard feelings. In fact, he just did an interview with the Tea Party Express saying how integral he has been to the success of the Obama administration," Daley is reported to have said.
Huntsman was ambassador to Singapore in the administration of President George H. W. Bush before working in the private sector in his family-owned business. He was elected Utah's governor in 2004, and secured a second term with more than 75 percent of the vote in 2008. That year he also served as a national co-chairman for John McCain's presidential campaign.
"I never expected ... to be called into action by the person who beat us," he said as he accepted Obama's appointment in May 2009. "But I grew up understanding that the most basic responsibility one has is service to country. 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."