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Sen. Kerry Gets Obama's Nod For Secretary Of State

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. This afternoon, President Obama is set to nominate Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as the nation's next secretary of state. Kerry would replace Hillary Clinton, who's planning to leave that post after four years as the president's globe-trotting emissary. Joining us to talk about the move is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley; and NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, who's here in the studio with me.

Thank you both for coming in.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

GREENE: Scott, you're at the White House, where you've learned of this decision. All signs, so far, that Kerry would win an easy confirmation from the Senate. And I guess I wonder if that was - if that was a factor for the president when, you know, when not much seems very easy in Washington right now.

HORSLEY: That's right. Unlike U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was, by some accounts, the president's first choice for the job, but who became a lightning rod over her comments about Benghazi, John Kerry's expected to sail through the confirmation process. He's a well-regarded senator. He chairs the committee that would have to cast the first vote on his nomination. He's friendly to some key Republicans, who've actively promoted him for the secretary of state's job. Of course, he's a decorated war hero who fought in Vietnam, then became active in the antiwar movement. So at a time when the president has plenty of congressional battles ahead, this is one choice that was fairly easy.

GREENE: No small thing, that the first vote will be in the committee that he has been on for a very long time.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Certainly, a lot of foreign policy experience; not, though, a member of President Obama's inner circle, but they do have some history together.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. Of course, in 2004, when John Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president, he tapped as the keynote speaker at his convention, a then-little-known Senate candidate from Illinois named Barack Obama.

GREENE: Hmm.

HORSLEY: And of course, it was that speech that launched Mr. Obama on the national stage. One of John Kerry's speechwriters was actually assigned to vet Mr. Obama's speech. And he took one line out of that famous speech because Kerry wanted to use similar language in his own acceptance speech.

GREENE: Huh.

HORSLEY: So I think it's fair to say, these two are pretty much on the same page; certainly, in the internationalist way that they view the world.

GREENE: Even liking in the same lines. Well, Michele Kelemen, let me turn to you. You've been covering Secretary Clinton. You've gone to - it seems like - every corner of the world with her. What do you expect? Are we going to have a different State Department, a different foreign policy if, indeed, John Kerry takes this job?

KELEMEN: I don't think it will be that different, to be honest. James Traub wrote a very funny profile in Foreign Policy magazine, where he said John Kerry is Hillary Clinton wearing pants - and then, of course, pointed out that she, too, always wears pants.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: That's true.

KELEMEN: But, you know, look. He's been the secretary-of-state in-waiting for years now. The administration has turned to him on several occasions. When there's been troubles with Afghanistan or Pakistan, he's gone out there to smooth things over. He certainly has the temperament of a diplomat. He was on this program back in 2009, talking about his walk in the gardens with Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president. That was the trip that the senator persuaded Karzai to agree to runoff elections. He's also gone, repeatedly, to Syria before Bashar al-Assad so brutally cracked down on his opponents. You know, so like many in Washington, Kerry thought that the U.S. could do business with Assad, at that time. So he's ready to engage even bad actors, if that's what the administration wants.

GREENE: So maybe not so much of a change in President Obama's foreign policy. But one change is this - Scott, let me go back to you briefly. This leaves a Senate seat open; that could make it vulnerable to a Republican replacing John Kerry.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. This could be a lifeline for Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who lost his own seat in November. He could get a second chance, to win a special election in that state. Of course, there will be a lot of Massachusetts Democrats trying to keep the seat in the blue column. That political consideration might have been a factor here but, you know, thanks to their strong showing in November, Democrats have a little bit more of a cushion in the Senate. And even if Scott Brown were to win Kerry's seat, he would not be the 51st Republican vote for anything.

GREENE: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, and NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley, thank you both.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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