Kerry now holds Obama's legacy in his hands

It might be more accurate to say that you can’t find another person who’s as engaged. Now 70, an old political warhorse with a lifelong thirst for greatness and nothing left to lose, Kerry is romping around the Mideast like a man on a mission. One year into his tenure, Kerry is well on pace to become the most-traveled secretary of State in history, with 320,961 miles logged. That far surpasses the annual distance traveled by his perambulating predecessor Hillary Clinton, who went a mere 206,799 miles her first year (though she made it to 44 countries, while Kerry’s gone to 39). And Kerry desperately wants word of America’s ultra-engagement to get out: Last week’s Davos speech came out of a heated strategy session on Jan. 7 with his senior staff, aides say. “We want to counter this idea that there’s a Middle East pullback,” Kerry said then. “I want this to be a major strategy.” Says his senior aide, “It’s what I heard from him over and over—that we’re not getting the credit.”…

And he’s making substantial progress: the first-ever partial freeze of Iran’s nuclear program; a historic chemical-weapons ban in Syria; and, against all odds, imminent action on a final-status framework paper for the Israelis and Palestinians that even a skeptic such as Aaron David Miller, a longtime Mideast negotiator, says “would simply not have been possible without Kerry.”

Kerry’s top aides, of course, say this is all at Obama’s behest. And indeed the president has long been trying to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy and “move off a permanent war footing,” as he said again in this week’s speech. Kerry is his main instrument. A savvy inside player in Washington and the son of a career diplomat, Kerry is also hyperaware of what happens to a secretary of State who gets out ahead of what Dean Acheson called his “constituency of one.” When aides refer to “your policy,” Kerry is always careful to correct them, saying, “the president’s policy.” For the last five years, this has been largely true: Obama has been the stern author of his administration’s approach to the world. But Kerry has much more freedom to act than Hillary Clinton did. “He is operating in a fundamentally changed environment,” Miller says. “In the first term, Barack Obama was the most controlling president since Richard Nixon.” Now, with only three years to go, and beset with the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, Miller says, “Obama is far more focused on the middle class than the Middle East.… He cannot dominate; he has to delegate.” What may cause tension between them is that “unlike his boss, Kerry actually believes in the power of diplomacy,” Miller adds. The White House disputes that characterization, but when it comes time to cut controversial, possibly politically toxic, compromises with the Iranians, Syrians, Israelis, or Palestinians, Miller asks, will Obama “have Kerry’s back?”

As 2014 ushers in deadlines for the critical, potentially world-transformative negotiations that Kerry has set in motion, there may be a subtle shift in influence inside the Obama administration. Because each of these talks now has a life of its own, it is increasingly likely that the White House will be following Kerry’s lead, for better or worse, rather than the other way around.