Hillary Clinton’s Successor: The Top 4 Candidates for Secretary of State


President Barack Obama faces the difficult decision of nominating a new secretary of state to fill the void left by Hillary Clinton’s expected departure. There are several candidates reportedly under consideration, including some prominent supporters of the administration. The list is shorter now that Ambassador Susan Rice – the current U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations – took herself out of the running.

The pros and cons of each are discussed below:

1) Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.)

The current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considered by many to be the leading candidate to replace Clinton. He is a nearly three-decade veteran of the Senate and former Democratic presidential nominee, as well as a distinguished voice on progressive foreign policy. Because of his Senate oversight responsibilities, Kerry knows the inner workings of the State Department well. He’s worked closely with previous secretaries of State and presidents alike. He also played a key role in shaping Obama’s policies, serving stints as an informal envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and reprised the role of Mitt Romney in the president’s debate preparations. His consideration for the post has been publically welcomed by congressional Republicans – who know and respect him – but who also likely covet an opportunity to replace Kerry with a Republican in a special election for his would-be-open Senate seat. Former GOP Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who lost a close and contentious race to Elizabeth Warren this November, would be a strong candidate to replace Kerry. If successful, Brown’s return to the Senate would complicate Democratic efforts to retain the seat and the party’s thin Senate majority.

2) Tom Donilon

President Obama’s National Security advisor is often described as one of the most influential national security officials in the White House because of his close relationship with the president. He previously served as the State Department team lead on Obama’s Transition Team and as deputy national advisor earlier in the Obama administration. And in the Clinton administration, he served as assistant secretary of State for Public Affairs and subsequently as Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s Chief of Staff. Donilon is closely associated with many of the administration’s foreign policy successes – including the Iran sanctions and the raid on Bin Laden – and has likely alienated certain congressional Republicans, as a result. He is a foreign policy insider, but some question his ability to serve as the energetic (and public) face of U.S. foreign policy in the mold of Secretary Clinton. That said, if current White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew is nominated and confirmed as the next treasury secretary, Donilon’s experience with the inner workings of the White House may make him a likely candidate to serve as a replacement.

3) Former Sen. Chuck Hagel

The current co-chairman of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board and Georgetown professor is a respected realist voice on foreign policy matters. A former two-term Republican Senator from Nebraska, he is a decorated Vietnam veteran and fierce critic of the Iraq War, who broke with his party and endorsed President Obama in 2008. Hagel and Obama met each other during their service together in the Senate and Obama has turned to Hagel for advice on national security issues ever since. During his career in Congress, Hagel served on the Foreign Relations Committee (with Kerry) and the Special Intelligence Committee and amassed extensive knowledge and experience in national security matters. As a former Senator, Hagel has the public stature expected in a secretary of state, but is reportedly the front-runnerto replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense.

4) William Burns 

The current deputy secretary of state is the second-ever career Foreign Service Officer to serve in such a senior position. Burns was previously the U.S. ambassador to Jordan and then Russia, and also served as Condoleezza Rice’s under secretary for Political Affairs (the number three position at the Department and traditionally the most senior position attainable for a career officer). He is well-respected by Democrats and Republicans alike for his foreign policy aplomb and leadership and was easily confirmed for his current post when Clinton nominated her long-time friend Wendy Sherman to replace him as under secretary. Burns is a dark horse candidate because he is not a political operative with a constituency that would support his candidacy and is not well known amongst the general public. Also, only one previous career official – Lawrence Eagleburger – has ever served as Secretary of State and that was via a recess appointment that lasted only six weeks – until Warren Christopher was sworn in and replaced him.

It is evident that President Obama has several strong candidates to choose from to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. While Kerry is the current front-runner in the race – due to his stature and support the Obama administration’s foreign policies – only time will tell who will ultimately be tapped to assume this important role. None of the four candidates listed above is likely to provoke a contentious confirmation process – as Susan Rice may have – so the administration has some flexibility with its choice.

This article originally appeared on the Truman Doctrine Blog.