President Barack Obama picked Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan, a cornerstone of American economic and security policy in Asia.
The only surviving child of the late president and his wife, Jacqueline, Kennedy would be the first woman to serve as the top U.S. envoy in Japan.
The nomination, announced yesterday, is subject to Senate confirmation. Kennedy, 55, would replace John Roos, a former technology lawyer and Obama campaign donor, as the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo. Her candidacy was first reported by Bloomberg in February.
Kennedy, an early backer of Obama in his 2008 run for president and a co-chairman of his 2012 re-election campaign, is one of several political supporters and donors who have been under review for ambassadorships to top U.S. allies.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement welcoming the news, saying it understands Kennedy has the “deep confidence” of Obama. The Japanese government “highly appreciates her nomination as reflecting the great importance the Obama administration attaches to the Japan-U.S. alliance,” the ministry said in the e-mailed statement.
Becoming an ambassador would allow Kennedy to continue a family tradition of public service. Her father, the 35th U.S. president, was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. Her uncle, Robert Kennedy, a U.S. senator from New York, was assassinated while running for president in 1968. Another uncle, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, died in August 2009 after serving in the U.S. Senate for almost 47 years. Her grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ambassador to the U.K.
In January 2008, when Obama was battling then-Senator Hillary Clinton of New York for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy endorsed Obama on the New York Times opinion pages, writing, “I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them.”
“But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president,” she wrote.
At the party’s national convention last year in Charlotte, North Carolina, she said Obama’s first term record reflected “the ideals my father and my uncles fought for.”
A graduate of Columbia University Law School in New York, Kennedy is the mother of three and the author or co-author of 10 books, from one on the U.S. Bill of Rights to “The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis.”
Kennedy would occupy a position previously held by men who were presidential friends, fundraisers, and elder statesmen, including former Vice President Walter Mondale of Minnesota and former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, both Democrats.
Tokyo is an important post because of extensive economic and security ties. Japan was the U.S’s fourth-largest trading partner in goods in January, following Canada, China and Mexico, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The U.S. imported $146.4 billion in goods from Japan last year and exported $70 billion.
Japan also plays a role in Obama’s attempt to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. Kennedy is being nominated at a time when tensions are rising in the region among Japan, Taiwan and China over disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
The next ambassador also will have to manage the longstanding differences between the two allies over American bases in Okinawa while communicating U.S. views to the Japanese government and public and Japanese positions to the White House and State Department.
Obama has rewarded financial backers, campaign operatives and White House aides with 35 percent of his ambassadorships, giving party loyalists postings at a higher rate than his recent predecessors.
President George W. Bush drew outside the diplomatic corps for 30 percent of his ambassadors while President Bill Clinton was at 28 percent, according to the American Foreign Service Association in Washington, a group that represents U.S. career diplomats.
Obama has already nominated donors to serve as envoys in some of the most coveted postings in Europe, including the U.K., France, Denmark, Spain and Germany.
Nine of the 13 U.S. ambassadors to Japan since 1960 have been political appointees, according to data compiled by the foreign service association.
While Obama’s ambassadors will report to Secretary of State John Kerry, political appointees often have the ability to go directly to the president. Their status as a friend and supporter of the president can give them more leeway than envoys who achieved ambassadorial ranking through their work in the foreign service.