President Barack Obama formally nominated Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry on Friday to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, calling him "the perfect choice to guide American diplomacy" in his second term.
The move came after Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, withdrew from consideration for the post rather than face a painful confirmation battle with an uncertain outcome.
"John’s entire life has prepared him for this role," Obama said with Kerry at his side in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Vice President Joe Biden and Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, were also present.
"Over these many years, John’s earned the respect and confidence of leaders around the world. He is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training," Obama said. "I think it’s fair to say that few individuals know as many presidents and prime ministers, or grasp our foreign policies as firmly as John Kerry. And this makes him a perfect choice to guide American diplomacy in the years ahead."
Kerry is expected to sail through confirmation by the Senate.
The president also paid tribute to his "outstanding secretary of state, my friend, Secretary Hillary Clinton," saying she had played "one of the most important" roles in guiding America on the world stage. Obama said Clinton had hoped to attend the announcement but "she continues to recuperate" from a stomach virus that led her to faint and suffer a concussion. The president added that he had spoken to her earlier and found her "in good spirits."
Kerry, 69, has played an important role in promoting Obama’s foreign policy over the past four years. In Congress, Kerry has advanced priorities like a landmark nuclear arms control accord with Russia, known as New START, and has undertaken sensitive missions overseas. He visited Syria in 2009 to take the measure of President Bashar Assad, and traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan several times to defuse diplomatic crises. At times, he has appeared to be ahead of the administration on policies it ultimately embraced, like intervention in Libya.
“I’ve called on his talents and diplomatic skills on several occasions on complex challenges," Obama said on Friday. "Each time, he has been exemplary."
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam vet who protested the war upon his return home, also played an important role in the 2012 presidential campaign, frequently and sharply criticizing Mitt Romney’s approach to—and even understanding of—foreign affairs. He also played the former Massachusetts governor in Obama’s debate preparations.
"Nothing brings two people closer together than weeks of debate prep. John, I’m looking forward to working with you instead of debating you," Obama quipped.
(More than one observer joked that the Obama campaign chose well by picking a stiff, patrician, wealthy Massachusetts politician to play … a stiff, patrician, wealthy Massachusetts politician. But both Kerry and Romney in private can be witty, or even goofy, and aides to both describe them as far warmer than their public personas).
The late Edward Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama in 2008 is often cited as a pivotal moment in the young politician's rise, but it was Kerry in 2004 who set the future president on the path to the White House by giving him the keynote slot at that year's Democratic National Convention in Boston. That speech instantly gave the then-Illinois state senator a national audience and national reputation for inspiring rhetoric—setting him on his own path to the White House.
The choice, however, could come with a political headache for Democrats, who worry that Kerry’s Senate seat could now fall to recently defeated Republican Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.
Obama’s choice of Kerry is the president’s first Cabinet nomination since he won re-election. Other top aides known to be eyeing the exits include Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Obama will also have to pick a new CIA director to replace retired Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned that post after admitting to an affair with his biographer.
The president indicated that Kerry would set the tone for his second term foreign policy, warning that "an uncertain world will continue to test our nation" and emphasizing that Kerry understands that "we’ve got to harness all elements of American power."
"Having served with valor in Vietnam, he understands that we have a responsibility to use American power wisely, especially our military power.," Obama said. "And he knows from personal experience that when we send our troops into harm’s way, we must give them the sound strategy, the clear mission and the resources that they need to get the job done."
The Kerry of the 2012 presidential campaign was noticeably more at ease, more combative and even more playful than he had been as a candidate in 2004. His Twitter stream shows off those traits. He recently retweeted Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s wry comment, for instance, about an Esquire magazine piece urging him to conceal his hair loss. There’s a comment mourning the death of a famed cannoli maker. And even a quip about how he doesn’t want to help end the NHL lockout because it might kill his dream of becoming a replacement player.
And when one follower tweeted to Kerry, “I've come to enjoy ur tweets. A little random, yet on pt. Keep it up,” the senator replied: “A little random, yet on pt–there are worse epitaphs!”
But while his confirmation is basically a sure thing, that doesn’t mean he won’t face tough questions from his current colleagues. Republicans—and some Democrats—have sharply criticized components of Obama’s foreign policy.
Kerry will surely face questions about efforts to force Iran to freeze its suspected nuclear weapon program, for instance, as well as the American response to the bloody civil war in Syria. He could take heat for traveling to Damascus as Obama’s unofficial envoy at a time when Assad was thought to be a potential reformer.
Kerry is also likely to face questions about the administration’s approach to China’s rise, about the war in Afghanistan, relations with Pakistan and other thorny issues.
He could also be asked about the Sept. 11 attack on the American compound in Benghazi, which claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The administration’s response to that assault basically cost Rice the post.
Republican Sen. John McCain, a frequent and fierce critic of Obama’s foreign policy, said at a Capitol Hill press conference that Kerry would face questions about the administration’s handling of Benghazi. But he added that "we have known John Kerry for many years. We have confidence in John Kerry’s ability to carry out the job."
“I disagree with him on a lot of policy choices, but I respect Sen. Kerry and I think he would be a very solid choice,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said at the same press conference.
While neither senator currently sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, they are leading voices in their party on foreign policy.
Perhaps the biggest minefield for Kerry could be his longstanding advocacy for aggressive steps to combat climate change—an unpopular stance in Congress, especially among Republicans but also with some Democrats.