Susan Rice, John Kerry At Top Of List For State And Defense Departments

With the election over, speculation is now turning to what will happen to President Obama’s Cabinet during his second term. On the domestic side, we already know that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wants to leave Washington at the end of Obama’s First Term. On the foreign policy side, Hillary Clinton let it be known last week that she would like to leave office as soon after Inauguration Day as possible and it would appear that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also expressed a desire to step down in the very near future. This leaves the President with two very big holes in his foreign policy team, three if you include the recently vacated position of CIA Director. Several names have already been suggested for both positions, but it would appear that the list is quickly narrowing to a select few.

Over at Foggy Bottom, the leading candidate for Secretary of State appears to be United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice:

(CBS News) President Barack Obama is putting together his cabinet for a second term, including a new CIA director. So far, only Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has confirmed she will leave. And Republicans are already objecting to her potential replacement.

CBS News has learned that President Obama is likely to nominate Susan Rice, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to replace Clinton as Secretary of State.

White House sources say the president feels he should be able to choose the cabinet members he wants, and they say that Rice has performed well on Iran and North Korea. But Rice was the public face of the administration’s response to the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, saying that they were prompted by a spontaneous protest — not terrorism — and she has come under fire from Republicans.

At the Pentagon, it looks like Senator John Kerry, who had originally been on the list for Secretary of State, is likely to replace Panetta:

If President Barack Obama asked John Kerry to become secretary of defense for his second term, he would bring a seasoned foreign policy hand into the Cabinet but a major question mark into the Pentagon.

According to a Washington Post report late Monday, Obama “is considering asking” Kerry, the senior Democratic senator from Massachusetts, to take the reins at the Pentagon. It would be part of “an extensive rearrangement of his national security team,” also driven by the need to replace David Petraeus as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Post said.


Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has widely been seen as a potential contender to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she leaves the administration, but Post reporters Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller wrote that her job is saved for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.

Instead, the Post’s story said Obama might ask Kerry to replace Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who is not expected to remain at the Pentagon much longer. Panetta is 74 and commutes home to California every weekend; few defense insiders believe he’ll stay past the spring or summer of 2013.

As The New York Times points out, both potential nominees could present some problems:

Both Ms. Rice and Mr. Kerry have a reservoir of good will in the Oval Office, and if she gets the nod, officials said, Mr. Kerry could be considered for defense secretary. But politics will inevitably play a part in Mr. Obama’s decision, especially in the wake of the sex scandal that brought down David H. Petraeus as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The decision, administration officials said, will likely hinge on whether Mr. Obama would rather risk a bruising confirmation battle for Ms. Rice or the loss of Mr. Kerry’s seat, which could be picked up by Scott P. Brown after the loss of his own seat last week.

“The question is, does the president want to launch a major fight with Congress over his choice of secretary of state?” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime diplomat who is vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The Senate and House have scheduled hearings on Benghazi this week, which will keep the heat on Ms. Rice as the White House begins its deliberations. At least one influential Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has already come out against her. “I’m not entertaining promoting anybody that I think was involved with the Benghazi debacle,” Mr. Graham said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “Susan Rice needs to be held accountable.”

The White House stoutly defends Ms. Rice, noting that in her remarks on Benghazi, she was reading from a briefing prepared by the intelligence agencies. The administration, citing new evidence, subsequently confirmed that the attack was an act of terrorism.

“Anyone who opposes Susan, based on one day’s comments, will have to reconcile that with what the intelligence said on that day,” said an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In the unforgiving climate of Washington, though, Mr. Kerry might profit from Ms. Rice’s misfortune. He would likely breeze through a confirmation hearing with his Senate colleagues. And he has been a loyal soldier for the administration on a variety of issues. In 2009, the White House dispatched Mr. Kerry to Afghanistan, where he helped talk President Hamid Karzai into accepting a runoff election. In the Senate, Mr. Kerry has pushed for Obama initiatives like the New Start treaty with Russia.

With his patrician bearing and Massachusetts roots, he was an obvious stand-in for Mr. Romney during debate preparation. While the president’s lackluster first debate almost capsized his campaign, his aides said they did not blame Mr. Kerry.

Nor does the loss of his Senate seat appear quite as problematic as it did before last Tuesday. Senator Brown, who was defeated by Elizabeth Warren, left the door open to another run. But some political analysts in Massachusetts say he might be more inclined to run for governor, given that the state once elected a fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republican — Mr. Romney — to that post. Even if he did run for the Senate, Mr. Brown would face a robust bench of Democrats.

Among the potential candidates for Mr. Kerry’s seat is Gov. Deval Patrick, who is close to Mr. Obama. On Friday, Mr. Patrick and his wife, Diane, flew to Washington for a private dinner with Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, at the White House.

Mr. Patrick may have his eye on a cabinet post like attorney general. But there are other formidable Democrats, like Representative Michael E. Capuano and Martha Coakley, who lost to Mr. Brown but has since rehabilitated her image as the state attorney general.

“I think the administration could feel relatively confident that they will hold on to the seat,” said Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University. “When you look back on Brown, it was a special election against an exceptionally weak Democratic opponent.”

Weighing against Mr. Kerry, officials said, is that he would be replaced as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee by Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. With his Cuban roots and hostility toward the Castro regime, Mr. Menendez would likely impede any diplomatic overture by Mr. Obama.

The bigger concern with Rice at State, at least for me, is her role in the initial Libya intervention last year and her advocacy of the flawed and irrational “Responsibility To Protect” doctrine. I would much prefer that her confirmation hearings, if they occur, concentrate on this issue and the direction in which she might push American foreign policy in a second Obama term. As for Kerry, I don’t have any particular objection to him at the Pentagon and, as noted above, he’s likely to sail through the Senate in any event.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Somewhere Robert Gates is sitting in a rocking chair, cracking a beer and thinking, “Yep, I timed that exit perfectly.”

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Susan Rice for State would be like putting Inspector Jacques Clouseau in charge of Interpol and except for the likes of Jane Fonda it’s hard to envision a less appropriate choice than Kerry for Defense.

  3. Console says:

    Kerry is better positioned as a Senator and Rice is a political fight waiting to happen.

  4. mantis says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    In light of your comments and knowing how wrong you are about everything, I think they are both great choices!

  5. James Joyner says:

    I cant’ imagine either of these flying. The Republicans are hot to get their pound of flesh on Benghazi and Rice is ground zero. Kerry would be a shoe-in at State but I don’t see how he’s confirmable at Defense given the Winter Soldier business and related controversies. That, combined with the prospect of having to face Scott Brown a third time would seem to make him a non-starter.

  6. mantis says:

    Commence the wingnut head explosions:

    Eric Holder Is Reportedly Staying On As Attorney General

    * Caveat: this was reported by the New York Post, so I await confirmation from an actual news organization.

  7. Geek, Esq. says:

    @James Joyner:

    Swift Boat crap in 2013? Much less persuasive than the prospect of Senator Brown.

    Republicans are going to try for their pound of flesh regardless regarding Benghazi. I say float the nomination, and if they throw a hissy fit, use that as an excuse to do away with filibusters for executive and judicial appointments.

  8. Anderson says:

    Kerry at Defense would send a huge message to the military about who Obama thinks is boss. I’m just not clear what admin talent Kerry would bring.

    Rice is innocent of the silly Benghazi rap, as Kevin Drum keeps pointing out, and senators with short memories are likely to waste their fire on that.

    But the real question is what rules the Senate adopts as to filibusters.

  9. edmond says:


    How would anyone know that Holder was staying on? Apparently Ellison’s Invisible Man was Holder’s autobiography.

  10. Anderson says:

    @edmond: You remind me of an old joke I read today.

    In the late 1940s, people upset about the direction of U.S. foreign policy would sigh, “If only FDR were alive!”

    To which wags would retort: “If only Truman were alive!”

  11. mantis says:


    If you’re going to try to be clever, you ought not say things like one man wrote another man’s autobiography.

    Though, to quote favorite philosophers of mine, there is a fine line between stupid and clever.

  12. JKB says:


    e’s likely to sail through the Senate in any event.

    On his tax dodging yacht, I presume.

    Sorry but if you are going to pitch easy ones, it would be rude not to swing.

    Why would Kerry want to be the leader of a bunch of uneducated rejects? Or has his opinion of our military grown in the last 6 years?

    As for Rice, well it was her ideas that led us into Libya which led to the overthrow of democracy in Maii, which has strong indications to be the next war Obama is going to get us into. So, yeah, she’s perfect for Obama diplomat in chief.

  13. Richard Gardner says:

    I’d support Senator Kerry for SecDef. Former Senator Bob Kerry that is (just lost an attempt to regain his Nebraska Senate seat). Medal of Honor recipient.

  14. mattb says:

    @James Joyner: Ditto your comments — though I don’t think the Brown thing is a major factor. In fact, I for one would welcome Brown back if he ran (and I don’t think his possible return would be ‘doom’ for Dems… unless he’s going to hold a nasty grudge over Warren).

    That said, I would much rather see Kerry as SoS than Rice. I’m at a bit of a loss as to her broader qualifications for the position. And (getting into dangerous territory here) I’d like to see a man return to the position so it doesn’t become a defacto “female position” (in the way that Marshall/Thomas’s seat on the courts is at risk of become the token Black seat).

    As far as defense, call me crazy, but one has to wonder if Jim Webb is being at all considered for the position. Last I heard he’s looking for a new gig and doesn’t have the same downsides as Kerry would.

  15. Jr says:

    Yeah, I agree with mattb.

    Stick JIm Webb at Defense, and put Kerry at State. Rice may be qualified, but this seems like a pointless fight the administration is trying to pick.

  16. Tano says:

    I think Jack Reed would be better at Defense.

    Rice is certainly a fight waiting to happen, but maybe the administration sees benefit in having that fight.

  17. bill says:

    seriously? who’s 3rd & 4th choices, they can’t be anymore “un-comfirmable”.

  18. Andre Kenji says:

    Jim Webb for Defense and Bill Richardson for SoS.

  19. Andre Kenji says:


    Rice is innocent of the silly Benghazi rap

    She is not Innocent of giving four terrible interviews in the Sunday Morning Shows.

  20. anjin-san says:

    Webb would be a solid pick for defense. Kerry makes sense at State, and Obama has not forgotten what Kerry has done for him. The senate seat is a problem.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Geek, Esq.: The Swift Boaters were nuts and most of their charges were sleazy. I said that repeatedly from Day 1. But Kerry’s Winter Soldier smears weren’t invented by the Swifties; they were real. There’s real bitterness toward Kerry by many in uniform.

  22. bill says:

    @James Joyner: true, but kerry made the mistake of allowing his camp to sell him as a “war hero”. I can remember (when I was a kid) kerry throwing his hat into the ring and never mentioning war service let alone being rambo’s predecessor. nobody would have attacked his service if he didn’t “embellish” it so much. plus, the lies about throwing his medals away in protest just won’t mesh well with a lot of people.

  23. mattb says:

    @James Joyner:

    But Kerry’s Winter Soldier smears weren’t invented by the Swifties; they were real. There’s real bitterness toward Kerry by many in uniform.


    I just don’t understand how Obama and company could be so tone deaf on that particular account. I realize it was in the past, but I still think this would be an issue, even with more recent rank and file.

    What would you think about Jim Webb or Jack Reed @JJ?

  24. Dave says:

    @bill: Please be more specific about your scepticism. I’m a former marine and anyone awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and 3 purple hearts can call themselves Rambo all they want. Also, if afterward they want to criticize the war they fought in, I’m not going to nay say them – they earned that privilege. So, unhhh, what’s your problem with Kerry again?

  25. bill says:

    @Dave: I don’t like how he joined the anti-war crowd that spit on our returning troops, and egged them on. He also posed as one of those guys who threw his medals away in protest (although they weren’t really his…) I’d never slam a vet for any service to the country but his actions were a dis-service to his fellow troops, in my opinion. plus, he’s a total dbag/ hypocrite.