WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Aug. 20 announced his intent to nominate Rahm Emanuel as U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Emanuel, 61, former mayor of Chicago and White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, is known for his abrasive style and his close ties with Biden, who was Obama’s vice president.
If confirmed by the Senate, Emanuel will be tasked with playing a key role in beefing up the U.S.-Japan alliance amid China’s growing assertiveness. The post has been vacant for about two years.
“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,” Emanuel said in a statement. “Our ambassadors to Japan have a long history of distinguished public service from both parties and I am humbled to follow so many statesmen who have served in this role.”
As mayor from 2011 to 2019, he oversaw increased economic development that revitalized the city and helped solidify its status as a global hub of culture and commerce. He ensured Chicago was a leader on the global stage, hosting the 2012 NATO summit, leading the continent in foreign direct investment for six consecutive years, convening mayors worldwide to commit to the Chicago Climate Charter of 2017 and helping establish the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Mayors Forum on Global Cities.
But he decided not to seek another term after facing criticism over the handling of a fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer in 2014. A delay in releasing video footage of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who appeared in the video to be walking away from the police when he was shot 16 times, stirred allegations that Emanuel was involved in a cover-up of the incident.
As chief of staff to Obama, Emanuel helped secure the passage of landmark legislation, including Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act, and advised the president on all key national security decisions during his first two years in office (2009-2010).
From 2003 to 2009, Emanuel served in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he held a number of leadership positions. He also served President Bill Clinton as assistant to the president for political affairs and senior advisor for policy and strategy.
He is currently national chair of the Advisory Council of Youth Guidance’s Becoming a Man (BAM) mentoring program. He graduated with a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Northwestern University.
Progressive Democrats and organizations have cited Emanuel’s governing record to question whether he is qualified for the ambassadorship or any other high-profile role in the Biden Administration, which places an emphasis on tackling racism.
“Emanuel’s abysmal record as mayor of Chicago disqualifies him to represent the United States in a foreign capital,” groups including the left-wing RootsAction said in a joint statement released in mid-March when some media reported the nomination plans.
National organizations signing the statement include Black Youth Project 100, Demand Progress Education Fund, Justice Democrats, People’s Action, Progressive Democrats of America, Veterans for Peace, and Working Families Party. Several Chicago groups also signed the statement, including the Chicago Committee Against War and Racism, Chicago Democratic Socialists of America, and Indivisible Chicago Alliance.
The statement said that Emanuel “has routinely served elite corporate interests and rarely the interests of the broad public or the causes of racial justice, economic equity or the peaceful resolution of conflicts at home or abroad. And whether in federal or municipal office, he has been known for his abrasive, arrogant style of wielding power.”
In November 2020, when speculation emerged about Emanuel’s chances of landing a Cabinet post, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who is popular among young voters, tweeted, “Covering up a murder is disqualifying for public leadership.”
But some experts on U.S.-Japan relations responded positively when Emanuel’s name first surfaced as a possible nominee for ambassador.
“He’ll be fully engaged, a good manager, and a solid pipeline to White House,” tweeted James Schoff, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said, “Rahm Emanuel spent his life in public service, and I think his 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.”
For the most part, appointments to this post have been based more on ties to the administration than on knowledge of Japan. One notable exception was President John F. Kennedy’s appointee, Edwin Reischauer, who was born in Japan to American missionaries and spoke fluent Japanese. Subsequent appointees have included former Senate Majority Leaders Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker, former House Speaker Thomas Foley, former Vice President Walter Mondale, and JFK’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, none of whom were known as Japan experts.
The U.S. ambassadorship to Japan has been vacant since William Hagerty, appointed by President Donald Trump, stepped down in July 2019 to run for the Senate in Tennessee.
Joseph Young, then deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, served as the interim charge d’affaires until June this year. Raymond Greene, formerly deputy director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto embassy there, is currently serving as interim ambassador to Japan.
In March 20200, Trump nominated Kenneth Weinstein, then head of the Washington-based conservative think tank The Hudson Institute, as the next ambassador to Japan. But Weinstein’s nomination was not confirmed by the Senate.
Biden also tapped Nicholas Burns, a former diplomat and currently a Harvard University professor, as ambassador to China. Burns, 65, was undersecretary of state for political affairs, the State Department’s third-ranking official, from 2005 to 2008 under the George W. Bush administration. He also served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2001 to 2005.
Kyodo News contributed to this report.