The Cable

Exclusive: Obama Favors Top White House Aide for No. 2 Job at State

This post has been updated. After months of intensive negotiations between the White House and the State Department, multiple sources familiar with the discussions say President Barack Obama now favors the nomination of Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken for deputy secretary of state, the No. 2 position in Foggy Bottom. The president came to ...

Getty Images
Getty Images

This post has been updated.

After months of intensive negotiations between the White House and the State Department, multiple sources familiar with the discussions say President Barack Obama now favors the nomination of Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken for deputy secretary of state, the No. 2 position in Foggy Bottom.

The president came to that view despite a strong push by his own secretary of state, John Kerry, who advocated for the nomination of Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs and chief U.S. negotiator on the Iran nuclear talks. The dispute between Kerry and Obama over the post hasn’t previously been reported.

"This was a really tough decision, very tough because of the quality of the choices, and ultimately, as tough as it was, Kerry felt that Wendy earned it, and so that was his view," said one source. Another source said the White House has sided with Blinken, and Sherman has been informed that she is not the permanent pick for the job.

Both the White House and the State Department denied that a final decision on the appointment has been made.

"We do not have any personnel announcements to make," said White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.

"As with any personnel decision, we will make an announcement when the process is completed and in advance will not be confirming reports or commenting on speculation," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.

Before the next nominee for the position is confirmed, Sherman will serve as acting deputy secretary, the State Department announced Monday.

The appointment of Blinken to the top diplomatic post would leave a significant void at the White House, but place one of the president’s most trusted allies at the helm of a department destined to play an outsized role in the final two years of Obama’s presidency. A key influencer on a range of foreign-policy issues within the White House, especially on Syria policy, Blinken is widely viewed as a collegial and non-ideological consensus-builder in the Oval Office. "Obviously it was very tough, but the president felt that [Blinken] earned it," said a source. 

Blinken has previously served as national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

The hunt to fill the deputy secretary position follows last month’s retirement of Bill Burns, a vaunted 32-year foreign service officer who orchestrated the secret back-channel talks that gave birth to the Iran nuclear negotiations. Last week, Burns accepted a job as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Though Blinken and Sherman are generally admired within the State Department, some rank-and-file employees would prefer the nomination of a career foreign service officer to replace Burns, something neither have on their CVs.

In the meantime, it remains unclear how Sherman’s transition to acting deputy director will impact day-to-day operations at the department. Sherman is the chief U.S. negotiator for the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna — a labor-intensive undertaking that has taken her away from some of the traditional duties of her post, which typically involves intensive consultation and oversight of the regional bureaus, such as European and Eurasian Affairs, Near Eastern Affairs, and South and East Asian and Pacific Affairs. While Sherman tends to those bureaus, sources say Burns helped out with that role as Sherman dove into the technical weeds of limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

According to a State Department notice that went out to employees today, Sherman will "assume all authorities and responsibilities of the Deputy Secretary," effective immediately. At the same time, she will continue to hold the position of undersecretary of state for political affairs and operate out of her same office.

A State Department staffer, speaking on background, said the promotion was in part prompted by the bureaucratic need to have "D-level" signatures sign off on important State Department business, such as contracts; D is the letter of the bureau occupied by the deputy secretary of state.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola