With a patrician bearing, three decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a highly decorated combat career in the Vietnam War, even a father who was a diplomat, John Kerry is the very picture of a secretary of state.
“In a sense, John’s entire life has prepared him for this role,” President Obama said on Friday as he nominated Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton.
Obama praised Kerry, 69, a Massachusetts Democrat, for having been immersed in “every major foreign-policy debate for nearly 30 years.”
But though Kerry would bring even deeper experience to the job than Clinton did, his appointment is likely to further centralise policy decisions in the White House, where for the past four years the president and a small circle of advisers have kept a tight grip on issues like Iran’s nuclear programme, China, Pakistan, and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan.
“There’s every reason to believe that we’re going to have a very White House-centric foreign policy,” said David Rothkopf, the chief executive of the Foreign Policy Group. “Kerry is going to have to show his loyalty and willingness to work within the Obama system.”
Kerry has figured at critical moments in Obama’s career. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention that nominated him for president, Kerry gave the keynote speaking slot to Obama, then a little-known senator, catapulting him to national prominence. In early 2008, Kerry endorsed him over Clinton, and this fall he played the role of Mitt Romney in mock debates.
“Nothing brings two people closer than weeks of debate prep,” said Obama, looking at a grinning Kerry. “John, I’m looking forward to working with you instead of debating you.”
However lavish Obama’s praise, his instinctive choice for secretary of state was Susan Rice, the ambassador to the UN, who withdrew her name from consideration after Republicans threatened to block her nomination because of statements she made after the lethal attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Rice, who is staying in her post, remains a candidate for a major foreign-policy post in the second term. If she were to move into the White House, analysts said, that would pose a test for Kerry.
“The easiest model to see developing is one in which Kerry is on the road a lot, interfacing with foreign leaders, but the decision-making is done at the White House,” said Elliott Abrams, who held foreign-policy posts in the terms of Ronald Reagan and George W Bush.