Joe Biden has chosen Rahm Emanuel, a former congressman and Chicago mayor, to be US ambassador to Japan, according to eight people familiar with personnel discussions inside the White House.
The US president will name Emanuel, who was chief of staff to Barack Obama and has close ties to Biden, this month in a big package of ambassadorship nominations, several of the people said.
Foreign policy experts had expected Emanuel, 61, to be given a high-profile post. There was early speculation that he was being considered as the envoy to China but that job is expected to go to Nick Burns, a former top US diplomat.
Tokyo is one of Washington’s most important diplomatic postings, particularly as the US and Japan work together to tackle challenges from China. Highlighting the importance of their alliance, Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s prime minister was the first foreign leader to meet Biden at the White House.
Emanuel will resurrect a tradition of sending influential former lawmakers to Japan, a trend Tokyo has appreciated because it is felt they have gravitas and more direct access to the White House.
Bill Clinton sent Walter Mondale, a former senator and vice-president, and then Tom Foley, a former Speaker of the House, to Tokyo. George W Bush appointed Howard Baker, a former Senate majority leader. The last high-profile ambassador to Tokyo was Caroline Kennedy, who served during Obama’s second term and is the daughter of John F Kennedy.
“From the point of view of Tokyo, the most sought [after] asset in a US ambassador to Japan is proximity to the president,” said Mireya Solís, a Japan expert at the Brookings Institution. “There is reassurance on that score since Rahm Emanuel and Joe Biden go way back.”
Emanuel, a hard-charging Democrat with a reputation for being abrasive, served in the Clinton White House in several roles, including as director of political affairs. He was elected to the House of Representatives but left in 2009 when Obama chose him as his first chief of staff, a role he held for less than two years.
After leaving the White House, he served two terms as Chicago mayor before opting not to run again. The decision followed criticism of the city’s handling of a fatal police shooting of a black teenager in 2014. In an interview with the Financial Times in 2019, he said his decision was personal but added that third terms in politics are “snakebitten”.
Emanuel came under fire from progressives last year after speculation emerged that Biden was considering him for a cabinet role, suggesting he could face a bruising confirmation battle in the Senate.
Public attention to the sometimes brutal treatment of African Americans by white police officers has also escalated since Emanuel left office.
Solís said Emanuel’s confirmation hearing would be closely watched because his tenure as Chicago mayor had created friction with some Democrats. She added that while Tokyo would value his relationship with Biden, there was some “trepidation” over his reputation for bluntness.
Emanuel’s grandfather emigrated from Russia and his father is from Israel. His brother, Zeke, is an oncologist who served on a team Biden set up before entering office to tackle Covid-19. His other brother, Ari, is a Hollywood talent agent who was the inspiration for a character on the TV show Entourage.
Biden has not yet nominated ambassadors to large US allies. Emanuel and the White House declined to comment.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter