Kerry Walks Softly Out of the Gate

The Obama White House will be watching Kerry’s words closely in the initial months.

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Jacquelyn Martin/REUTERS

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Tegel International Airport in Berlin, February 25, 2013.

Newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry has always been a loner. In his long Senate career he was more known for his investigations and courtship of foreign leaders than collaborating on legislation. His aloof nature kept him apart from his colleagues and it wasn’t until the end of his Senate career, years after his failed 2004 presidential bid, that Kerry gained popularity in the Senate. Even his sports are solitary: biking and wind surfing. So, how does someone who’s spent his life picking his own waves happily row a boat someone else is steering?

Kerry faces many hurdles. He is well aware that he may not have been Obama’s first choice to succeed Hillary Clinton; Kerry’s nod only came after UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s candidacy went up in flames. So, he has proceeded cautiously. He brought just seven staffers over to State with him. He allowed the White House to pick his spokesman and his speechwriter, and held over many of the top career folks at State. His first speech was an unspectacular 5,500 words on the importance of foreign aid. Dennis McDonough, the new White House chief of staff who until last month was deputy National Security Adviser, was trotted out to do the Sunday shows before the new Secretary of State.

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Certainly, the Obama White House will be watching Kerry’s words closely in the initial months, lest he overreach. Over the past four years, Kerry has criticized the White House from his perch as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urging Obama to get involved in Libya well before he did, critiquing the Administration’s mishandling of the Middle East peace process and relations with Pakistan and advocating the arming of the Syrian opposition which Obama has rejected. Now, Kerry will need to turn that deep expertise inwards. He’s met with every living past Secretary of State and has relied on advice from his longtime friend and colleague Vice President Joe Biden at regular breakfasts. He’s also sought counsel from National Security Adviser Tom Donillon and his deputy Ben Rhodes. He has even held regular meetings with Susan Rice, meetings so sacrosanct Kerry asked his staff to “protect” them on the calendar from encroaching appointments.

Kerry doesn’t just want to represent Obama’s policies; he wants to help craft them, tackling the big issues of the day. To that end, he plans more time in Washington than the million-miler Clinton. The trips he does do, he hopes, will be more collaborative with the White House: he plans on accompanying Obama on his first trip to Israel as President next month, hoping to jump start the long-stalled peace process. “The White House is the center for policy making and that won’t change,” says a former top State Department official. “That doesn’t mean he won’t be pretty vocal in internal deliberations.”

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Kerry has been telling friends he likes to think of himself as Bill Walton, the legendary basketball forward. In 1985, Walton joined the Celtics, Kerry’s hometown team. It was the glory days of the franchise with “The Big Three” Hall of Famers: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. Walton, already an established pro in his own right, didn’t come in and try and compete with them for the spotlight, instead he looked for ways to be useful to them: setting up passes for Bird and Parrish, coming off the bench to breathe McHale.  “There’s no more ‘me,’” Kerry told staff at his first meeting in the State Department, “only, ‘we.’”

Secretaries of State stumble when they get ahead of their bosses. Colin Powell realized how short his chain was when in his first few months in office he said the Bush Administration would “pick up where the Clinton Administration left off” with direct negotiations with North Korea. The White House publicly contradicted him. Powell later sheepishly told reporters, “I got a little far forward on my skis.” Hillary Clinton too was kept on a short leash at first, applauded less for her groundbreaking initiatives than for her ability to be a team player. The White House retained tight control on issues from Iran to Israel to Syria. Clinton was given more rein in Asia where she laid the groundwork for the long-heralded but yet-to-be-achieved pivot to Asia and oversaw normalized relations with Burma. The challenge for Kerry, in what is likely his last job, will be to convince Obama to give him enough leeway to follow the Clinton model.

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