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Rahm Emanuel in the pipeline to be President Biden’s pick for ambassador to Japan

Here’s a rundown on the state of play with Biden poised to announce a package of ambassador picks.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel is poised to be President Joe Biden’s pick to be U.S. Ambassador to Japan.
Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel is poised to be President Joe Biden’s pick to be U.S. Ambassador to Japan.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — With former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel poised to be tapped by President Joe Biden to be the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, here is a review of the state of play of the expected nomination.

To know: Emanuel, who was ex-President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, is close to Biden and friends with a trio of his highest-level aides: Ron Klain, Steve Ricchetti and Bruce Reed. Still, the job of the ambassador to Japan is a position Biden must get right, no matter the personal ties.

The relationship is so significant that on April 16, when Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met with Biden at the White House, he was the first head of state Biden met with in person.

Though a group of Democratic progressives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., oppose Biden picking Emanuel for any spot in the administration, in part because of the Chicago police shooting of Laquan McDonald, Emanuel’s known proximity to Biden and the rest of his West Wing is a very big selling point to Japan, a major U.S. ally.

As the English-language Japan Times noted in a Tuesday story, “Nominating Emanuel to the post would signal the importance the Biden administration places on the U.S. alliance with Tokyo as Washington lays the groundwork for a strategy to deal with challenges presented by China.”

The article, quoting Sebastian Maslow, “an expert on Japanese politics at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University,” said if Emanuel is nominated it “should be viewed through the lens of ‘the Biden administration’s attempt to renew U.S. commitments to its traditional allies.’”

While Japan “might be worried” about Emanuel’s “temperament,” Maslow said, a reference to his well-known brashness and non-diplomatic use of expletives, “Tokyo will certainly emphasize his long-standing role within the Obama and Biden White Houses, which should help Japan to establish a solid channel for managing the alliance.”

Background: Once Biden was elected, Emanuel’s name was floated for Transportation Secretary. Emanuel wanted the Cabinet position. 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.

After Biden tapped Pete Buttigieg, Emanuel next was in play — as I reported in December — for a high level ambassadorship.

In December, NBC News said it would be China or Japan. The Washington Post late last month said Emanuel’s nomination to be ambassador to Japan was pending. The Financial Times on Tuesday reported the same thing, triggering more stories.

The Sun-Times confirmed Emanuel, 61, who ended his second term as mayor two years ago, is currently Biden’s pick. A White House official said Tuesday, “We are not commenting on anyone, and no one is final until they’re announced.”

Timing: My sense is this is at least a week away, maybe more. The Biden administration wants to announce multiple ambassador nominations at the same time and have the package carefully balanced for diversity.

High demand: “There are enormous pressures on the administration to bring ambassadors on,” said Tara Sonenshine, who served as an Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under Obama. “And there are likely way more people interested than available posts.”

Potential ambassador nominees come mainly from three “pipelines,” as Sonenshine puts it.

The pipelines — and this is not unique to the Biden White House — are career foreign service officers who would like to move up; people who are politically close to the Biden administration — that’s Emanuel’s bucket — and then there are donors who have leverage because they fundraised for Biden who think they should get London, Rome or Paris.

“Japan is a highly sought ambassadorship, especially given the Olympics and especially given the region — Asia being such a hot region,” Sonenshine said.

As for being confirmed in the 50-50 Senate where Democrats can’t afford to lose a vote, Emanuel would likely find enough GOP support to get him through even if a few Democratic senators drop off.

The Biden administration is apparently willing to spend some domestic political capital with an Emanuel nomination.

If Emanuel goes to Tokyo, it would restore the practice of a U.S. president sending in a high profile ambassador; the last boldface name sent to Japan was Caroline Kennedy, Obama’s nominee. Anyway, it’s the Japanese who will be mainly dealing with Emanuel, not Washington.