WASHINGTON – President Obama nominated John F. Kerry, the five-term senator from Massachusetts, to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State on Friday, choosing a longtime political ally who shares much of his foreign policy worldview and is likely to sail through confirmation hearings.
Appearing with Kerry at the White House, Obama said the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had “played a central role in every major foreign policy debate for nearly 30 years.
“In a sense, John’s entire life has prepared him for this role,” Obama said.
Obama settled on Kerry shortly after the wrenching withdrawal of Susan Rice, his envoy to the United Nations, as the top candidate for the post. He delayed the announcement to avoid interfering with national mourning over the mass slaying at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Kerry, 69, has chaired the Foreign Relations Committee since 2009. His selection gives the White House a veteran foreign policy hand who has demonstrated his willingness to work with Obama’s inner circle of advisors over the last four years.
The Cabinet position will give Kerry a decorated Vietnam veteran who later helped lead veterans opposed to the war, a career-capping assignment that he has long sought.
But it also risks the loss of what has been a reliable Democratic seat in the Senate. Democrats control the Senate by a 55-45 margin but face midterm elections in two years that could sharply narrow those numbers.
Scott Brown, a Republican who lost his Senate seat in last month’s election but remains popular in the commonwealth, could run again in a special election next year. Several Democrats have indicated interest, including Edward Kennedy Jr., son of the late senator.
Rice withdrew her name from consideration on Dec. 15 after a tenacious campaign by Republicans who said her public comments misled the country after armed militants killed four Americans at the the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in September.
Kerry was the only other leading candidate for the post, and his nomination is expected to easily win Senate approval. Several GOP lawmakers who led the opposition to Rice, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), urged Obama to choose Kerry instead.
White House officials concede they owe a special obligation to Kerry for all he has done for Obama in politics and diplomacy. In 2004, when Kerry was running for president, he chose Obama to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, providing the obscure state senator from Illinois an invaluable introduction to American voters.
Republican hawks could raise questions about Kerry’s resistance to U.S. military intervention abroad in some conflicts. And a group of Vietnam “swift boat” veterans who opposed his presidential campaign have vowed to voice their objections again.
Kerry has shared Obama’s interest in trying to talk without preconditions to adversary regimes, and he shares Obama’s desire to shift the U.S. military from the grueling ground wars of the last decade to a “light footprint” abroad.
Kerry “would much rather solve problems by negotiations and diplomacy than by war,” said Jonah Blank, a former Kerry aide and South Asia specialist. “He’s seen war: He knows it ain’t pretty, and very often it doesn’t work.”
At the beginning of the Obama’s first term, Kerry sought to help the White House work out a broad Mideast peace deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad – a mission that continues to come under strong criticism by Republican hawks.
Kerry also acted on Obama’s behalf as a diplomatic middleman in sensitive talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and helped sooth relations with Pakistani leaders after a period of intense turmoil.
Kerry, whose father was a foreign service officer, has traveled widely and has shown himself willing to take on the wearying drudgery of diplomacy. Also like Mrs. Clinton, he has shown an ability to talk to foreign leaders as fellow politicians, a valuable asset.
Another arguable advantage: Kerry, a tall man with a stentorian voice and what is sometimes described as a patrician bearing, looks and sounds the part of America’s top diplomat.
Rudy DeLeon, a former Senate Democratic aide and Pentagon official during the Bill Clinton administration, said Kerry will come to the job well versed on the issues and with relationships that will be valuable to the White House.
“The Senate is going to be a key participant in much that the administration does on foreign policy, so his relationships there will be an asset,” said DeLeon, now with the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning think tank. “And he has ties to world leaders from China to the Middle East.”
Obama has let slip to aides that he has sometimes found Kerry long-winded. Still, it is clear Obama is comfortable working with him and Kerry has won points by being a good partner to Clinton.
One issue for Kerry will be whether he becomes frustrated with how the administration’s foreign policy has been highly centralized in a small team around Obama.
But foreign policy experts believe Kerry -- like Clinton -- will be willing to take orders from the West Wing as long as he believes his views are being considered.
Kerry is less interested in management, and is likely to need a strong deputy with management skills to oversee running of the State Department.
Kerry’s accomplishments as committee chairman include legislation he pushed, with ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Valley Village), to restructure and expand aid to Pakistan. Kerry was also an important advocate for the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
Secretary Clinton has indicated that she is willing to remain in her post beyond Obama’s inauguration if necessary. But the selection of Kerry may make that unnecessary.
[For the record, 8:47 a.m., Dec. 21: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Kerry was a recipient of the Medal of Honor.]