WASHINGTON (AFP) – Former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, launching his 2012 White House bid on Tuesday, urged voters to help him rewrite a grim narrative of US decline and sharply assailed President Barack Obama.
“We’re not just choosing new leaders. We’re choosing whether we are to become yesterday’s story or tomorrow’s. Everything is at stake. This is the hour when we choose our future,” he said in remarks prepared for delivery.
Emulating conservative icon Ronald Reagan, Huntsman was due to officially launch his campaign in a New Jersey state park in sight of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline scarred by the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The former Utah governor, 51, expressed “respect” for Obama as well as his fellow Republican presidential hopefuls, insisting the voters will decide “who will be the better president, not who’s the better American.”
But he savaged Obama’s handling of the economy during the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, saying “we need more than hope” in a reference to “hope and change” mantra of Obama’s historic 2008 campaign.
“For the first time in our history, we are about to pass down to the next generation a country that is less powerful, less compassionate, less competitive and less confident,” Huntsman said in excerpts from his speech.
“This is totally unacceptable and totally un-American,” he added, assuring voters at a time of painfully high unemployment that he knew that “for the average American family there is nothing more important than a job.”
Huntsman painted himself as the right candidate to “make hard decisions that are necessary to avert disaster,” warning that the swelling US debt risked smothering the economy and weighing down Washington’s global leadership.
“Our influence in the world will wane. Our security will be more precarious. The 21st Century then will be known as the end of the American Century. We can’t accept this, and we won’t,” he said.
Huntsman did not directly allude to his recently completed 20-month stretch in Beijing handling arguably the most crucial US diplomatic relationship, a job that has proven a double-edged sword among his fellow Republicans.
The former diplomat, who served in Reagan’s White House, possesses what are widely considered to be the best foreign policy credentials of a crowded Republican field that has left cold many of the party’s core voters.
Huntsman supporters say he is the best suited to get China to abandon what US politicians charge are unfair trade practices that stifle US job growth, notably charges of intellectual property theft and currency manipulation.
The former Utah governor, who won reelection in late 2008 by an amazing 78 percent of the vote before Obama tapped him as top envoy to Beijing, trails far behind Republican front-runner and fellow Mormon Mitt Romney.
Huntsman is well regarded in China, due to his fluent Mandarin and because one of his seven children is a girl, Gracie Mei, adopted from China. He was also known for preferring his bicycle to chauffeur-driven armored limousines.
He helped Washington navigate a particularly thorny time in relations between the world’s top two economies, during which they battled over everything from the yuan and trade to Taiwan and Internet freedom.
In diplomatic cables made public by the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks, Huntsman said Washington should “embrace” China’s rise, but charged Beijing’s economic policies “blatantly tilt the playing field” against US firms.
Among Republicans, however, he is not well known — and among those who know his name, sizable numbers consider his work for the Obama administration to be an unpardonable betrayal.
Obama has repeatedly spotlighted their relationship, vowing recently “to make sure that every primary voter knows it” and joking that “having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.”
Huntsman, the motorcycle-riding son of a chemical billionaire, has countered that he was serving his country when he worked under the Obama administration.
But he has also praised Obama’s economic stimulus package, backed civil unions for gay couples, and supported a “cap-and-trade” plan to curb greenhouse gases blamed for global warming — all targets of Republican scorn.
And some commentators say his Mormon faith could irk evangelical Christian voters who make up a key part of core Republican voters.