By Jessica Yellin and Holly Yan, CNN
Nine years after his presidential bid ended in defeat, John Kerry’s political career might take a major turn Thursday during his hearing to become the next secretary of state.
The longtime senator from Massachusetts could sail to an easy confirmation, as politicians from both parties expressed optimism he would win approval.
“Over these many years, John’s earned the respect and confidence of leaders around the world. He is not going to need a lot of on-the-job-training,” President Barack Obama said when he nominated Kerry last month.
“I think it is fair to say that few individuals know as many presidents and prime ministers or grasp our foreign policies as firmly as John Kerry, and this makes him a perfect choice to guide American diplomacy in the years ahead.”
Kerry is noted for having the experience, gravitas and relationship-building skills that could help him succeed Hillary Clinton, the outgoing top U.S. diplomat.
His nomination came after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew from consideration amid criticism over comments she made about the attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Kerry has traveled the globe on behalf of the Obama administration to mend frayed relationships. Most notably, he traveled to Pakistan amid deteriorating relations from a series of incidents, including the raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Obama praised the senator’s “extraordinarily distinguished Senate career” and military service in the Vietnam War. He said Kerry has earned the respect and trust of his Senate colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, and the president said he’s confident the Senate will swiftly confirm the nomination.
Clinton issued a statement calling the pick “excellent.”
She said Kerry has been her “trusted partner on major foreign policy challenges.” She said he helped end the war in Iraq and advocate a “responsible transition in Afghanistan. He helped get important legislation for Pakistan and win ratification with Russia of the New START Treaty.”
Clinton added that Kerry has been “working closely with me and my team to learn the lessons of the tragedy in Benghazi, further protect our people and posts, and implement every single one of the Accountability Review Board’s recommendations,” she said, referring to the killings of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in Benghazi in September.
Others have echoed the praise for Kerry.
“There are very few people with greater experience over a longer period of time,” said Nicholas Burns, a former career ambassador who has served every secretary of state since Warren Christopher, and was most recently undersecretary for political affairs under Condolleezza Rice. “He would be a very, very impressive choice.”
“You really need someone who is a renaissance person with a tremendous range of skill, both political and substantive, with a deep reservoir of knowledge,” Burns said. “You need someone who can drill several layers deep on foreign policy issues.”
Susan Rice had been seen as a frontrunner for the job, but she withdrew her name from consideration after Republicans said her TV talk show comments about the killings of Americans in Libya were misleading.
Kerry soon became the top candidate for the job. Republicans opposed to a Rice nomination had bandied about Kerry’s name, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Kerry would be a “popular choice with the Senate.”
Kerry, 69, spent much of his childhood overseas. After graduating from Yale University in 1966, he was deployed to Vietnam as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. He was a gunboat officer on the Mekong Delta, earning the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
Upon his return home in the early 1970s, Kerry gained public recognition as the head of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War and for his anti-war testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In 1972, he ran his first campaign, a losing effort for a congressional seat in Massachusetts. He eventually entered politics in 1982 as lieutenant governor under Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Two years later, Kerry won the U.S. Senate seat he has held for five consecutive terms.
Kerry would come to the post with a full plate of foreign policy crises, including the civil war in Syria, the nuclear antics of North Korea and a looming showdown with Iran over its nuclear program.
Like Obama, Kerry sees the benefit of reaching out to adversaries, like Iran and Syria, and giving them a chance to negotiate. At one point, Kerry even spearheaded outreach efforts to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before the administration turned on al-Assad because of his crackdown on protesters.
But he also has called for arming the opposition and for NATO airstrikes, which Obama’s administration has resisted.
The Middle East would be sure to take up a good part of the secretary’s time. In addition to helping bring about a political transition in Syria, the United States also must manage the political chaos in Egypt and the rest of North Africa while trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran and revive the Middle East peace process.
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