The Buzz

Who Will Be the Next Secretary of State?

Now that President Obama has won his battle for reelection, some of the media conversation is naturally turning to the question of what personnel changes he might make in his second term. The most prominent expected vacancy is at secretary of state, where Hillary Clinton has made it clear for some time that she planned on stepping down after the 2012 election even if Obama were to win.

Reuters has an overview of the candidates who are thought to be frontrunners for the job and the arguments for and against each of them. The three supposed leading contenders—John Kerry, Susan Rice and Tom Donilon—are no surprises, reflecting what analysts have been saying for months. Other names that it throws out as more long-shot chances include David Petraeus and Chuck Hagel.

To indulge in the speculation, Kerry is probably a slight favorite at this point. He was one of Obama’s more effective surrogates on foreign policy during the campaign, giving a major convention speech that aggressively defended the president’s record abroad. He could sail through the confirmation hearings, unlike Rice (given conservative concerns about her role in the White House’s public response to the recent Benghazi attack) and Donilon. As Bob Woodward reported in Obama’s Wars, in 2008 Donilon was considered for deputy secretary of state, but the Obama team thought that his previous role as in-house counsel to Fannie Mae was “toxic” and that he “might have serious problems in a Senate confirmation.” Furthermore, Kerry doubtless has the biggest public profile and the greatest international name recognition of the three frontrunners.

The biggest potential pitfall to a Kerry nomination critics have identified is that it would open up his Senate seat for a special election next year, perhaps laying the ground for Scott Brown to take it back yet again. But with Democrats doing well in Tuesday’s Senate races and increasing their majority to fifty-five seats (assuming Angus King caucuses with them), this should be less of a concern than if their party held the majority by only one or two seats.

Kerry would be a safe, unobjectionable pick. But if Obama is interested in making a different, bolder one, there’s at least one other name he could seriously consider: Jon Huntsman. As with his choices to nominate Clinton and retain Robert Gates four years ago, it would signal his willingness to work with both those who ran against him and members of the opposite party.

More importantly, during the GOP primaries Huntsman was an outspoken advocate for a sensible, pragmatic realism that focuses on core national interests and provides a blueprint for where American policy could be headed in Obama’s second term. In his calls for a faster drawdown in Afghanistan, targeted cuts in the defense budget and a rebalancing of U.S. priorities toward Asia, Huntsman is broadly in step with the administration on a number of major issues. Likewise, Huntsman’s tenure as ambassador to China provides him with valuable experience managing America’s most important bilateral relationship. And in an administration that is often divided among itself on the question of humanitarian interventions, Huntsman would be a welcome voice on the side of caution, placing him on the side of other skeptics such as Joe Biden.

Could it happen? It seems unlikely. Among other drawbacks, it could be difficult for Obama to take a man who stepped down as his ambassador to China to run against him for president, and elevate that man to secretary of state. But it would not be the first time that Obama has surprised us with his pick for that position.