Politics

Biden administration eyes Rahm Emanuel for ambassadorship

Josh Lederman and Carol E. Lee
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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits WSJ at Large with Gerry Baker at Fox Business Network studios on August 1, 2019 in New York City.
Steven Ferdman | Getty Images

President Joe Biden is considering former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a high-profile ambassadorship, potentially to China, three people with knowledge of the discussions said.

Becoming the U.S. ambassador to Japan is another option that Biden administration officials have discussed with Emanuel, one of the people with knowledge of the discussions said.

Emanuel, who became White House chief of staff when Barack Obama took office as president, has a reputation as a sharp-tongued political street fighter. He has clashed at times with progressive Democrats.

He is also a well-known figure in Democratic politics who would bring notoriety to an ambassadorship. Biden is considering him for a key diplomatic position as administration officials look to fill dozens of vacancies in capitals across the world, with decisions expected in coming weeks.

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There is precedent for selecting boldface-name political figures to represent the U.S. in both Beijing and Tokyo. Obama selected Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican, as ambassador to China — a move Emanuel played a role in as White House chief of staff. Long-serving former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also filled the role in Beijing during Obama's second term, and he was succeeded by former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad during the Trump administration.

Japan — a U.S. ally — has come to appreciate, and even expect, a flashy name as its ambassador, seeing it as a sign of the importance an American president places on the relationship. Caroline Kennedy served in the role during Obama's first term, for instance. Former Vice President Walter Mondale was U.S. ambassador to Japan during the Clinton administration, and former Senate Republican leader Howard Baker of Tennessee was in Tokyo during President George W. Bush's administration.

Another person familiar with the discussions said Emanuel's name had also been floated internally for U.S. ambassador to Israel. But, this person said, the idea was deemed unworkable because of Emanuel's notoriously rocky relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, dating to his time as Obama's chief of staff.

Emanuel and the White House didn't comment. A State Department spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment.

Emanuel was a Democratic member of Congress when Obama named him chief of staff in 2009. He left the White House to run for mayor of Chicago in 2011 and served in the role until 2019 after having decided not to seek a third term. He was reported to have been considered by the Biden team to be transportation secretary but ultimately wasn't nominated for a Cabinet post.

It's unclear how some Democrats might react to Emanuel's getting a critical ambassadorship. Often, such roles go to key political allies and fundraisers or to experts in a particular country or region.