WASHINGTON -- White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has informed the Obama administration he "plans to leave during the first part of this year." Whether the former Utah governor will go on to dip his toes in the Republican presidential primary, Gibbs didn't say.
"I have talked to several people and I have not heard anybody say they know what the future holds for the ambassador except to say, as I said earlier, that he will leave sometime in the first part of the year," Gibbs said.
Speaking on the same day several outlets reported that Huntsman was making preparations to explore a 2012 bid, Gibbs offered a bit of slowdown warning to the American ambassador to China. "The president, and I think the American people, expect that somebody who holds the post of Ambassador from the United States to China will dedicate their full energy and time to that position," he said, "and we believe that Ambassador Huntsman believes that as well."
The departure of Huntsman from his post has spurred the political observing class to dream up scenes of a former Obama official taking on the president he served. But the speculation has always been tempered by a basic question: how could a Republican whose main source of appeal (circa 2008) was his castigation of rigid conservatism find his way to the Republican nomination?
One GOP operative suggested that Huntsman could present himself as a more sincere version of Mitt Romney. Like Romney, Huntsman is a well-financed Mormon, but unlike the former Massachusetts Governor, he hasn't signed health care legislation that resembles Obama's own signature law.
The operative added that there is no love lost between the two Republicans. But another GOP hand who knows both said that while they "don't really have much of" a relationship, that Hunstman's father raised campaign funds for Romney in 2008.
UPDATE 5:36 p.m. ET:
Politico reported early Monday evening that Huntsman has submitted a letter of resignation to the president:
In a letter hand-delivered to the White House, the former Utah governor said that he wants to return to the United States by May, the associate said. The letter thanks Obama for the opportunity to serve the country and praises the U.S. embassy staff in Beijing.