WASHINGTON — President Obama intends to nominate Caroline Kennedy, a close political ally and the daughter of slain president John F. Kennedy, as U.S. ambassador to Japan, the White House announced Wednesday.
Kennedy brings star power to the post as the most famous living member of America's best-known Democratic political dynasty.
The nomination rewards Kennedy for providing crucial early support to Obama. She endorsed him in January 2008 over his better-known rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Kennedy went on to campaign for his election and to co-chair the vice presidential search committee that selected Joe Biden as his running mate.
By giving Kennedy the nod, Obama continues a tradition of sending a high-profile envoy to Japan. Previous ambassadors have included former vice president Walter Mondale and two former Senate majority leaders, Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker.
If confirmed by the Senate, Kennedy would be the first female ambassador to represent the United States in Japan.
Kennedy, 55, would fulfill another family legacy: Her grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938 to 1940. Her aunt, Jean Smith, was ambassador to Ireland.
The White House made the announcement with little fanfare, announcing Kennedy's nomination Wednesday afternoon alongside three nominees for domestic posts. In a statement, Obama said all the individuals bring a "depth of experience and tremendous dedication to their new roles."
The post would place Kennedy at the center of the U.S. relationship with one of the world's largest economies. She would replace John Roos, a Silicon Valley lawyer and Obama fundraiser, who had no previous diplomatic experience but won praise for his work helping to coordinate the U.S. relief effort after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in March 2011.
Kennedy's nomination comes after months of tension in the region. Japan is engaged in territorial disputes with both China and South Korea. Internally, the Japanese government is working to revive the economy and grapple with a rapidly aging population and enormous public debt.
Kennedy, whose nomination has long been expected, has neither extensive government nor business experience.
"Japan is in real crisis right now. This is a moment for some real creative thinking on the part of the United States," said Clyde Prestowitz, an expert on Japan and president of the Economic Strategic Institute. He objects to Kennedy's nomination.
"The only thing Caroline Kennedy has going for her is the Kennedy name," he said. "We keep handicapping ourselves in our global diplomacy by putting people into positions who don't know anything about what they are doing."
The ambassadorship would mark the highest profile role undertaken by Kennedy. She has authored 10 books and serves as president of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. She spent much of her adult life avoiding the family business of politics until she sought appointment in late 2008 to Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate seat from New York.
Kennedy withdrew from consideration weeks later after a rocky public rollout and persistent questions about her lack of political experience.
In a statement, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it understands that Kennedy has Obama's "deep confidence" and "highly appreciates her nomination as reflecting the great importance the Obama administration attaches to the Japan-U.S. alliance."
Her supporters note that few U.S. ambassadors could claim closer ties to both Obama and to Secretary of State John Kerry, who served alongside her uncle, Edward Kennedy, for more than two decades in the U.S. Senate.
John Podesta, who served as White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, said Kennedy "brings tremendous assets to the post, the most important of which is the trust of and direct pipeline to the president and the secretary."
David Lewis, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who studies presidential appointments, called the nomination the "latest in a string of political appointments" Obama has made in his second term. Political allies and fundraisers have been nominated to top diplomatic jobs in South Africa, Denmark, England, the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic in recent weeks.
"From the Japanese perspective, what Kennedy lacks in foreign policy experience in the region, she more than makes up for in access to the White House," Lewis said.
Kennedy graduated from Harvard University and has a law degree from Columbia University. She and her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, have three children.
Contributing: David Jackson