Everyone from a Chicago gossip columnist to network TV correspondents reported today that President Obama had settled on Senator John F. Kerry as his next secretary of state yet was withholding a formal announcement, sparking White House denials but highlighting the challenge in any rollout.
UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s decision this week to drop out of contention made Kerry the consensus pick within Washington to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, but the White House is said to want to unveil an entire national security team in one announcement, and the other successors are less certain.
A top administration aide discounted the report about Kerry in the Chicago Sun-Times, later followed by a similar report from Fox News, CNN, and ABC, and would only say that no announcement was being made today.
Kerry spent the day at his Beacon Hill home, working, relaxing, and visiting with his grandson, before flying back to Washington tonight.
An aide insisted that the Massachusetts Democrat wanted to be back in the capital only so he could meet with his staff ahead of next week’s Senate business.
Chuck Hagel, former senator of Nebraska, a Vietnam War veteran, has been labeled a top candidate to succeed departing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, but he needs to be thoroughly vetted before being offered a job in the administration.
Hagel has also faced opposition from some in the Jewish community who have complained about his criticism of Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon.
A top Defense Department official said today that Obama has yet to decide between Hagel and other candidates.
The list of candidates said to include Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter and Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy.
Meanwhile, the possibility of picking Kerry and Hagel — two white men — for the two secretary positions could also create pressure on the White House to add gender or racial diversity to the team with its selection of a permanent replacement for David Petraeus as CIA director.
Among the possible candidates in that case would be Flournoy or Jane Harman, former representative of California. She currently heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and is a former member of the House Intelligence Committee.
The interim CIA director, Michael J. Morell, is also thought to be a candidate, while Carter could end up with an energy role.
External events could also play a role in the timing of a national security team rollout.
Panetta was traveling this week in Afghanistan and Turkey, while Clinton was bedridden with a virus that forced her to cancel a planned trip to the Middle East and North Africa.
Today, her spokeswoman said Clinton had a concussion after fainting because of her illness and would work at home next week.
She had been slated to testify before Congress on Thursday about the circumstances of the Sept. 11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
That testimony has been postponed, though the White House official said Clinton’s illness was not affecting the timing of any successor announcement.
Public attention has also been focused on the mass shooting on Friday in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 elementary school students and six adults in their school.
Obama delivered emotional remarks on Friday at the White House and dedicated his weekly radio address today to the topic. He planned to visit Newtown on Sunday night.
The president is slated to leave Washington on Friday for his annual Christmas holiday visit to his native Hawaii.
His departure could be delayed, however, by his ongoing “fiscal cliff” negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner. The talks are aimed at avoiding sharp federal spending cuts and tax increases that are scheduled to take effect automatically on Jan. 1.