President Barack Obama on Friday nominated John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, calling the veteran U.S. senator the “perfect choice” for America’s top diplomat as he began reshaping his national security team for a second term.
Obama settled on Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, after the front-runner, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, withdrew from consideration last week.
Even as Obama put one important piece of his revamped Cabinet in place, he held off on naming a new defense secretary. The delay came in the face of a growing backlash from critics of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who is considered a leading candidate to replace Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.
With Kerry standing at his side, Obama expressed confidence that the senator - a stalwart supporter who has long coveted the State Department job - would win swift confirmation from his Senate colleagues.
“As we turn the page on a decade of war, he understands that we’ve got to harness all elements of American power and ensure that they’re working together,” Obama said. “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.”
The announcement fell short of the White House’s earlier hopes of rolling out national security appointments, including a new CIA director, all at once before Christmas. That ambition was thwarted not only by the Hagel controversy but other matters that have occupied Obama’s attention - the standoff over the “fiscal cliff” and last week’s Newtown gun massacre.
Kerry, 69, will take over from Clinton, who has been consistently rated as the most popular member of the president’s Cabinet.
But he will also have to pick up the pieces after a scathing official inquiry found serious security lapses by the State Department in the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya - a report that has tarnished the final days of Clinton’s tenure.
Kerry’s nomination follows a political firestorm that engulfed Rice, seen as the early favorite for the State job, spearheaded by Republicans fiercely critical of her role in the administration’s early explanations for the Benghazi assault.
Rice was defended by Obama, but she said on Dec. 13 she was pulling her name from consideration to avoid a potentially lengthy and disruptive confirmation process.
Kerry, known for his role as a Democratic power broker in the Senate, offers no such challenges.
His selection sets a pragmatic tone as Obama begins overhauling his national security team.
Kerry will be the leading Cabinet member charged with tackling pressing global challenges, ranging from upheaval in the Middle East to Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West and winding down the war in Afghanistan - all at a time of fiscal austerity at home.