The contrast between Kerry’s ambitious agenda and the slow changes he has brought to the State Department raises questions about whether he has the political muscle to accomplish what he has started. It also feeds perceptions that the Obama White House has extended control over the department since the departure of Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Answering questions from Congress recently, a frustrated Kerry blamed the White House and the slow machinery of Senate confirmation.
“The greatest difficulty I’m finding — now that I’m on the other side of the fence — is, frankly, the vetting process,” Kerry testified last month. “I’ve got some folks that I selected way back in February, when I first came in, and we’re now April, and I’m still waiting for the vetting to move.”
It’s hard to draw firm conclusions about Kerry’s pull with the White House or his likelihood of success with specific policies, but the empty offices at home are a warning flag, several senior department officials said.
Kerry’s travel schedule sets a tone of energy and engagement that is probably welcome abroad, said former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Cameron P. Munter, but that has to be supported by a smooth bureaucracy at home. “My concern is that to sustain that work of reaching out, he can’t just do all of this himself,” said Munter, a professor of international relations at Pomona College.
Kerry was a frequent troubleshooter during the president’s first term, and he came to the job with extensive foreign policy credentials and the deep respect of many of Obama’s senior aides.
But after nearly 30 years as a senator, Kerry is still getting used to the constraints of speaking for the president, not himself, and of taking orders about what he should not say.
He went off-message several times on his most recent trip, including an unscripted comment revealing his blunt message that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should not make a long-planned trip to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip. That earned a scolding from Turkish officials, who said Kerry had made it harder for Turkey to pursue political rapprochement with Israel.
Although hiring has slowed and become more cumbersome across the federal government, a trend that spans administrations, the problem is especially acute at the State Department.
As of May 1, no new nominations for non-career ambassadors had been sent to the Senate. That is despite a long list of donors, many of them big-money bundlers, and other Obama political associates said to be in line for plum posts such as London, Paris or Berlin.