Jon Huntsman Bets Against History, Taking on Obama in 2012

Lincoln trounced his erstwhile Civil War general, George McClellan; Truman dispatched his former commerce secretary, Henry Wallace; and now Obama is looking to do the same in 2012 against his outgoing China ambassador. Jill Lawrence on why Jon Huntsman thinks he can beat the odds—and his boss.

04.29.11 9:13 PM ET

Running against the boss has been rare in presidential history, and it hasn't ended well. Think George McClellan against Abraham Lincoln, or Henry Wallace against Harry Truman. Now Jon Huntsman is preparing to give it a try.

Huntsman, 51, is about to make a lightning-fast transformation from President Obama's employee to his potential rival. His resignation as U.S. ambassador to China takes effect Saturday. On Monday he will plunge into meetings with the advisers who, without his input, have been laying groundwork for a race for the Republican nomination. His travel schedule starts this week with a commencement speech (and possibly a debate appearance) in South Carolina, followed two weeks later by a commencement speech in New Hampshire.

It is hard to imagine Huntsman, a moderate former Utah governor and a diplomat, for Pete's sake, going hammer and tong after the president he served for two years and has called " a remarkable leader."

The most prominent past races pitting a president against a former member of his team have come after deep public divisions over war, peace, and security. Lincoln fired McClellan, his top Civil War general, after months of exasperation over how McClellan was fighting the war. The dismissal came in November 1862, and it wasn't until October 1863, nearly a year later, that McClellan declared himself a Democrat and entered the political arena.

Not that McClellan ever had to criticize Lincoln in public or explain to voters why he disagreed with his own party platform calling for a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. Back then, "presidential candidates did not campaign themselves," says John C. Waugh, author of the 2010 book Lincoln and McClellan. "McClellan certainly didn't. He made three appearances during the whole campaign. He didn't speak at any of them." Lincoln didn't campaign, either, but he pulled levers from behind the scenes and beat McClellan by 10 points.

Wallace, commerce secretary in the Truman administration, quickly went from being the only Roosevelt Cabinet member asked to stay to being fired for a speech criticizing the Cold War. He saw trade opportunities and wanted a more conciliatory relationship with Moscow. "He was very concerned about the deterioration of U.S.-Soviet relations. He felt they were on a very dangerous course and that our postwar relationship didn't have to go that way," says former Iowa Senator John Culver, co-author of American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace.

Forced to resign in September 1946, Wallace continued to criticize Truman's policies as editor of The New Republic and later as the presidential nominee of the Progressive Party in 1948. Wallace was not a communist, but communists were widely perceived to be in charge of his campaign. He won only 2.4 percent of the vote.

Huntsman and Obama have had no public rifts on major issues. Indeed Obama has been trying, mischievously, to bury Huntsman with praise. Foreign policy and trade are two areas where Republicans are sometimes more supportive of the president than Democrats.

John Weaver, architect of the 2000 John McCain campaign and now of the nascent Huntsman campaign, says there are "tons of differences" between Huntsman and Obama. "Jon's a fiscal conservative. He was a businessman for 10 years. He's actually had to produce a product and he's employed tens of thousands of people," Weaver says, referring to Huntsman's stint as head of his family's giant chemical company. "He has a free-market health-care plan [in Utah]. He's pro-life. I could go on for hours."

None of these differences carry the drama of deep fissures on the Civil War or the Cold War. But they are important in Republican primaries. Other prospects have some or all of those qualifications. Huntsman's team points to his deep foreign-policy background (Mormon mission to Taiwan, fluent in Mandarin Chinese, former ambassador to Singapore, former deputy U.S. trade representative); quirky life experience ( high school dropout who played keyboard in a rock band for 11 years); potential appeal to the independents needed in a general election (supports civil unions for gay people and served a Democratic president); and personal qualities that make him stand out in the emerging GOP field.

Richard Quinn, a South Carolina pollster, has met with other candidates but is waiting for Huntsman on the strength of a conversation they had two years ago. "Huntsman's got that X-factor," Quinn says. "He had a twinkle in his eye, and a sense of humor. He was relaxed and comfortable in his skin." As for the weirdness of having served the guy he wants to beat, "My gut tells me he'll be able to turn that into an advantage" because he'll speak with authority on foreign policy and it's clear that "he's willing to put aside partisan politics when it comes to national security."

Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and the rest of the field are lobbing sharp insults and critiques at Obama every chance they get. What will Republicans make of a candidate who has praised the president's leadership skills? "The Obama family had been very gracious to Jon Huntsman's family and children," Weaver says. Only recently, he adds, "have we gotten to where you have to hate someone to run against them… I don't know how people will be able to solve problems in this country if you have to pretend to hate everybody."

Huntsman, says Weaver, is "not an angry person." That's how he and others have positioned Huntsman at Horizon PAC, the political action committee that will be the foundation of his 2012 explorations. "What happened to decency? To reason? What happened to common goals? To calm? To respect? What happened to actual, lasting solutions to problems? When were they replaced with anger?" the website asks. And there you have the themes of a Huntsman campaign.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's decision to skip the 2012 race deprives the field of another contender who, like Huntsman, is a veteran governor and policymaker and non-angry politician. But there will be competition for that slot, as well as the cool-kid motorcycle-rider niche, if Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels decides to get in.

Huntsman has never had a tough political race—he won the 2004 gubernatorial election with nearly 58 percent of the vote and the 2008 contest with nearly 78 percent. His state is predictably Republican in presidential campaigns, so unlike Daniels or Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, Huntsman wouldn't improve the GOP's chances of winning a swing state. He has the money to self-finance a campaign, but Weaver says he would urge against that because the goal is for people to "invest in your message and your vision about what you want to do for the country."

One encouraging sign for Huntsman—and Daniels, for that matter—is that Republican voters are unhappy with the current field. Another is that while the historical record does not bode well for upstart former team members, history does not stand still. Quinn quotes Yogi Berra—"the future ain't what it used to be"—to justify his hopes for Huntsman. "How many African-American presidents have we had before Barack Obama? In South Carolina we have an Indian governor who was raised a Sikh and converted to Christianity," he says. "There's nothing that's being shattered more these days than conventional wisdom."

Jill Lawrence is an award-winning journalist who has covered every presidential election since 1988. Most recently, she was a senior correspondent and columnist for Previously, she was a national political correspondent for USA Today and national political writer at The Associated Press.