WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden tapped Rahm Emanuel to be the next U.S. ambassador to Japan on Friday, adding if confirmed a new chapter for a man who’s been a two-term Chicago mayor, congressman and chief of staff to a president.
Progressives mounted a drive to block the nomination of Emanuel, who was former President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff and a senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton.
However, his long-time relationship with Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, and his closeness to three of his highest-level aides - Ron Klain, Steve Ricchetti and Bruce Reed – cleared the way for his comeback into public life.
Neither a Japan expert nor a career diplomat, Emanuel would be a high-profile ambassador, his closeness to Biden and other crucial West Wing figures a visible sign of the importance of Japan, a strong U.S. ally.
The relationship with Japan is so significant that Biden’s first in-person meeting as president with a head of state was with Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on April 16.
Emanuel, not one for sitting still, has been doing his homework, talking with experts on Japan, taking briefings, reading the Japanese press and doing other research about the nation.
In a statement provided by the White House Emanuel said, “For nearly 30 years I have worked with President Biden on behalf of the American people, and I am honored that he has nominated me to serve as Ambassador to Japan.
“The alliance between the United States and Japan is the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific, and I would proudly represent our nation with one of our most critical global allies in one of the most critical geopolitical regions.
“... I look forward to discussing my nomination with the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, if confirmed, to serving the United States of America.”
Emanuel’s name has been in play for an ambassadorship since December, after a cabinet post he pursued did not materialize.
After Biden was elected last November, Emanuel’s name first was floated for secretary of the Department of Transportation. That job instead went to Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend mayor who ran for president in 2020.
Emanuel became too hot for Biden to handle for a Cabinet post after protests from leaders of public service unions, civil rights groups and progressive organizations.
A group of Democratic progressives oppose Emanuel for any spot in the administration, in part because of the 2014 Chicago police shooting of 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald while Emanuel was mayor.
The Biden administration is apparently willing to spend some domestic political capital with an Emanuel nomination.
Jeff Cohen, the co-founder of RootsAction.org, said his progressive group is organizing opposition to Emanuel. “The #RejectRahm/“NoToRahm” campaign has virtually organized itself,” he said.
Emanuel’s centrist Democratic politics, his record on immigration and health care during his Obama White House years, and his tenure as mayor have sparked domestic protests from the progressives.
The Japanese government is likely to care only about Emanuel’s proximity to Biden — not his famous brashness or other factors.
As for being confirmed in the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats usually can’t afford to lose a vote, Emanuel likely would find enough GOP support to get him confirmed even if a few Democratic senators drop off.
U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tn., a former Trump ambassador to Japan and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, congratulated Emanuel in a statement.
If confirmed, Emanuel would restore a practice of high-profile Americans — not scholars or career diplomats — being sent to Japan.
Obama picked Caroline Kennedy, an early crucial supporter. She followed, among others, former Vice President Walter Mondale, former House Speaker Tom Foley and former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, all Democrats, as well as Republican Howard Baker, a former Senate majority leader.
Rahm Israel Emanuel, 61, was born in Chicago and raised in north suburban Wilmette. He served as mayor from 2011 to 2019 and was chief of staff for Obama from Jan. 20, 2009, through Oct. 1, 2010, when he left to make his first City Hall run. He was elected to Congress from a North Side district four times, stepping down to become Obama’s first chief of staff.
Emanuel’s wife, Amy, is said to be amenable to the Japan posting.
Biden also tapped a career diplomat, Nicholas Burns, to be the next U.S. ambassador to China. A White House official said, “This region of the world and these two relationships are among the most important for the United States, for different reasons. So the president has nominated two people with a tremendous amount of experience.”
Clinton said in a tweet that Emanuel and Burns “are smart decision makers, experienced leaders and dedicated public servants. @POTUS has made a great choice in naming them Ambassadors to Japan and China.”
To bolster Emanuel, several top Democrats, including U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the No. 3 House leader and the top Black member, issued statements after the White House announced Biden’s intention to send Emanuel to Tokyo. None referenced the McDonald shooting.
In statements, the chair of the Chicago City Council Black Caucus, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), and Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) praised Emanuel’s tenure as mayor.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement, Emanuel “has a lifetime of public service preparing him to speak for America.”
“Japan is an important strategic partner in Asia, particularly in light of our continued challenges from China. I will do all I can to help Rahm become America’s voice in Japan.”
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said in her statement, Emanuel’s “years of experience make him well suited to represent the United States of America in this important role.”
I look forward to his confirmation and his efforts to continue strengthening our longstanding relationship with the Japanese people.”
Neither of the Illinois senators sit on the Senate Foreign Service Committee, the panel that deals with ambassador nominations.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Biden, in nominating Emanuel, has chosen a leader of immense experience and effectiveness to represent our nation in Tokyo.
“In the House and, indeed, across the nation, Rahm Emanuel is known and respected by all for his relentlessness and track record of success. His great experience, from the U.S. House to the White House, will serve our nation well, as he works to deepen one of our nation’s most important alliances, champion American interests abroad and advance regional security and prosperity.”
Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter and Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades Council President Ralph Affrunti in their statement noted that as mayor, Emanuel supported “Chicago as an international convention and tourism destination through leveraging our physical assets with the best unionized workforce in the city. We look forward to working with Ambassador-Designate Emanuel on strengthening the relationship between the working people of Chicago and Japan.”
The Chicago Federation of Labor has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.