John Kerry is no Hillary Clinton -- and he's OK with that.
In the three weeks since Kerry succeeded Clinton as secretary of state, he's already sent unmistakable signals of his independence with a more assertive, proactive and risk-taking stewardship of America's foreign policy -- with a more sustained focus on the Middle East and Europe than his predecessor, according to current and former administration officials.
Kerry, officials say, views the job as the apex of his up-and-down 40-year political career and aspires to a more central policymaking role in the Obama administration than Clinton, who practiced what one official called "odometer diplomacy" -- a focus on globetrotting to bolster America's relationships abroad coupled with attempts to cope with an array of pop-up crises.
As head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry was a staunch supporter of Clinton's, fiercely defending her in the wake of the Benghazi attack. But she's not necessarily his model for how to do the job. He's more drawn to power players of recent history -- George Shultz, James Baker, Henry Kissinger and George Marshall -- secretaries who have wielded considerably more influence inside the White House than Clinton.
"He's going to be more willing than Hillary was to tackle the big things... If he were able to help broker an exit for [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, for instance, that would be huge for him," says a veteran senior diplomat who knows Kerry and has served as an adviser to officials in both parties.
It's not that Clinton didn't try to do big things, State Department watchers say. But Obama's determination to avoid new foreign entanglements -- and his insistence on tight control over diplomacy -- dictated a narrower approach, focusing on women's rights and smaller international initiatives, like re-establishing relations with Myanmar.
Former State Department official Aaron David Miller says Kerry can afford to be "more ambitious" because he poses less of a threat to Obama's team -- and he predicts Kerry will seek to carve out a Mr. Fix-It role on foreign policy similar to what Vice President Joe Biden has managed to annex on domestic policy.
"Kerry is not Hillary, and this is a second term. Kerry will have a lot more discretion -- assuming he doesn't screw up," says Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
"Hillary had to travel, she made a virtue out of necessity. The president was not going to let her dominate on foreign policy... he's the most domineering president on foreign policy we've had since Nixon," he added. "In a way history is going to be crueler to Kerry, if he can't figure out a way to be a more conventional secretary of state. He doesn't have Clinton's ascendant arc. The bar for Kerry in the job is much higher because this is his last act, and he knows it. He's going to want to have a more meaningful role."
Part of that role entails a push for new international agreements, an effort that fell apart in late 2009, but one that Kerry defines as a signature issue comparable to Clinton's focus on women's issues.
For all his determination to make inroads with Obama's team, Kerry lacks Clinton's celebrity and rock-star status -- assets that made her a huge draw around the world and gave her a measure of leverage over Obama's turf-conscious team. If Kerry's first speech as secretary on Wednesday -- a rambling 50-minute defense of State Department spending delivered at the University of Virginia -- he's unlikely to recapture the Hillary-mania that greeted Clinton during her first trips around the globe.
Still, he hinted at greater ambitions, speaking passionately about his experiences as a 12-year-old boy walking in mid-1950s Berlin, where his father served as a diplomat.
"As we ask where our next steps should fall on this path, we would do well to learn a lesson from our own history. In the aftermath of World War II and its great toll, America had the choice, just like we do today, to turn inward," he said. "Instead, Secretary of State George Marshall saw in both defeated and allied nations the threat of bankruptcy, homes and railways destroyed, people who were starving, economies decimated."
Kerry, 69, has always deflected any talk of dissonance between himself and Clinton, and they are both broadly nonideological -- recognizing that much of what a secretary does or says is reactive, at a time of upheaval, strife and the emerging international power of China. During his otherwise easy confirmation hearings, Kerry said there was "no daylight" between the two on Benghazi and he has gone out of his way to recognize her accomplishments.
"The big question before the country and the world ... Can a man actually run the State Department?" he asked during introductory remarks at Foggy Bottom on Feb. 4.
His spokeswoman even cast his first foreign trips in classic Clinton terms, dubbing it a "listening tour."
Yet Kerry's tenure has begun with a subtle assertion of his independence from his predecessor and her priorities.
Some White House officials wanted Kerry to follow in Clinton's footsteps by making his maiden overseas trip a tour of Asia, according to two people close to the situation. Instead, Kerry insisted on a 10-day trip that starts in London, with stops in Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
"That raised a few eyebrows," says one State Department adviser about Kerry's decision on the itinerary.
While he publicly supports Obama's long-standing policy of reorienting the country's foreign and national security strategy toward China and Asia, he's privately less enthusiastic about the pivot than Clinton, who made it a core aspect of a philosophy focused on the long game. At the start, he seems more interested in the here and now, hoping to intercede directly on contemporary crises in Syria and Iran, and helping to broker a new trade pact with Europe, one of the few big-ticket foreign policy items Obama referenced during his State of the Union earlier this month.
Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland shrugged off the issue at a recent briefing, saying Kerry would have added Asia stops to his itinerary but didn't want to make "an already long excursion... even longer."
Early in the administration, Clinton decided it simply wasn't worth her time to push for a new Israel-Palestinian peace agreement in the face of a hawkish Israeli regime, an implacably violent Hamas in Gaza and corrupt Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
The emergence of a powerful centrist bloc in the recent Israeli election might change all that, and Kerry was one of the advisers pushing Obama to schedule first trip to the Jewish State next month, according to a person familiar with the situation.
"He may well focus more intensely on the Middle East peace process and the negotiations that go into that," says Nina Hachigian, a senior foreign policy fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress who served on the National Security Council in the 1990s.
Much has been made of Clinton's warm personal relationship with Obama, which steadily improved over the years. Yet despite all the encomiums on her departure after four years -- capped by an affectionate dual "60 Minutes" sit-down last month -- Clinton worked for a president who demands an unusual amount of direct control over foreign policy.
This wasn't personal, as it turned out -- just Obama's hands-on-the-wheel management style.
Obama heeded Clinton's counsel as part of his team, aides say, but she often took a backseat in Obama's inner circle: The powerful and trusted National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Donilon's deputy Denis McDonough -- now Obama's chief of staff -- and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, the president's first choice to succeed Clinton at Foggy Bottom.
Despite Kerry's stiff reputation and an ego that even friends have described as ample, he's more comfortable in subordinating his own ambitions than was Clinton, whose Foggy Bottom fiefdom was guarded by longtime aides Cheryl Mills and Philippe Reines.
Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, has a closer relationship with Obama's team, serving as Obama's debate sparring partner in 2012 -- a rough-and-tumble experience that brought the two men, never the best of friends, closer together.
If his early moves as secretary are any indication, Kerry intends to be a team player, less fussy about his prerogatives than his predecessor. He has brought several top staff with him, a team that includes top aides David Wade and Bill Danvers and former Boston Globe reporter Glen Johnson, who joins his communications staff.
He has also embraced a roster of Clinton holdovers, especially the North Korea expert Wendy Sherman, an adviser to Clinton's 2008 campaign. And he has already endeared himself to the West Wing by exhibited an un-Clintonian willingness to accept staffing suggestions from the West Wing, including the hiring of longtime Obama communications staffer Jen Psaki to replace Nuland as his principal spokesperson.
But the main thing that binds Kerry to Obama is the calendar -- both men exit public life in 2016.
Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who worked under Clinton, thinks Kerry will benefit from a second-term convergence of motive with Obama -- as both men seek to cement their global legacies.
"I do think that the president's legacy will be on the domestic side, and he's laid out a very ambitious domestic agenda," Crowley said. "But at some point, his attention will come back to foreign policy... That gives Kerry a great deal of room to maneuver on some issues. Take Middle East peace: I'm sure Kerry would want to test those issues. [Obama and Clinton] tried in the first term, but did not get anything from those investments. It's interesting, and correct for Kerry to go over there on his first trip to listen... That could set something up later. If Kerry can come up with something in the middle innings, the president might be able to come in and close."
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