WASHINGTON — He's not president, a Cabinet member or ambassador, but Sen. John Kerry has ascended to the unofficial role of President Barack Obama's global adviser on key issues that could reshape the nation's image around the world.
Mediating Afghanistan's presidential election vaulted Kerry from the already prominent chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee into the most exclusive circle around a new president who is juggling but has not resolved a variety of domestic and foreign policy matters. Beyond policy, Kerry knows how Washington works.
Kerry and Obama also share a political pedigree. Both were mentored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who died in August.
"Obviously, Sen. Kerry is somebody who has a broad range of experience and an in-depth knowledge of issues, ranging form energy and climate change to health care to foreign policy," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. "I think it's that experience and insight that (Obama) certainly greatly values."
That cannot be overstated. Obama made his debut on the national stage at the 2004 presidential convention at which Democrats nominated Kerry to challenge George W. Bush's bid for a second term. Obama's speech electrified the party and the convention. It was the first time many Americans had heard of the young Illinois state senator.
"I'm here because of you," Obama wrote Kerry on the January day he was sworn in as the nation's first black president. The note is framed and hangs on Kerry's Senate office wall.
And now, Obama is leaning on Kerry to help shape his foreign policy. The two men met at the White House on Wednesday just hours after Kerry returned from Afghanistan, where he played a crucial role in persuading President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff vote after a fraud-plagued presidential election.
"I really tried to be the utility, you know, hitter or fielder at the time," the 65-year-old senator, his voice hoarse and hip sore after an overnight flight home, said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press in his Senate office.
The meetings with Karzai, he said, were intensely emotional and played out over "a lot of days, a lot of evenings, a lot of meals, a lot of tea."
Karzai, Kerry said, felt deeply that he had won the election and that he was being insulted for trying to have a democratic process. Kerry could relate.
"Do I understand the day after an election where you think you've won, or you have votes that weren't counted or something? Been there, done that," Kerry said. He talked to Karzai about his own loss to George W. Bush in 2004 and about the 2000 election, in which the Supreme Court called the contested election for Bush.
"It helped him see that ... every country's gone through its difficult races," Kerry said.
Kerry's plane touched down at home around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. By lunchtime, he was advising Obama at the White House. Kerry says he advised the president to know the outcome of the Afghan elections before sending more troops there.
"I mean, who's your defense minister?" Kerry said. "Do you have a good defense minister who's going to help coordinate the Afghan forces with your troops or do you have a political appointee who doesn't know anything about what he's doing? These things matter."
Kerry declined to say whether or when Obama should send more troops and said he'd elaborate on that point Friday during a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Kerry brushed off a questions about how it felt to be the de facto secretary of state, saying he and the woman who holds that position worked together as a team the whole time. Hillary Rodham Clinton talked to Karzai by phone while Kerry spent face time with him.
Still, observers said, Kerry's role as a presidential adviser on so many major domestic and foreign policy issues is unusual. Earlier this year, for example, Kerry helped reopen talks with Syria in a meeting in Damascus for President Basher Assad. He'll lead a delegation to Copenhagen in December for climate talks and sponsored the Senate bill to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. Then there's his hefty role on Obama's top legislative priority – rewriting the nation's health care policy.
David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, said traditionally the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee "stays at home and goes quietly on fact-finding missions.
"It's extremely rare that any president calls on an individual outside the executive branch to do as much representative work and diplomacy as Sen. Kerry," said Gergen, who served as an adviser to four presidents.
If Clinton leaves her position during the Obama administration, Gergen added, Kerry "would be on everyone's short list and probably right at the top of it as a potential successor."
So would Kerry be interested if Clinton leaves the post while Obama is still in office? Fatigue and three rounds of questions did not knock Kerry off his answer, three times, that he's "very happy" as a committee chairman in a Democratic-run Congress under a Democratic president "that I worked very hard to help get into office."
If he ever had any doubts about his Senate role, an old mentor may have set them aside. Aboard the Mya, Kennedy's sailboat, in August 2008, the stricken older senator noted that Kerry stands at the same point in his career as Kennedy, when he bowed out of the 1980 presidential race and returned to the Senate.
According to a Senate official with knowledge of the conversation, Kennedy told Kerry that he has decades of Senate service ahead of him if he wants it, and that without presidential ambition, no one can question Kerry's motives.
Still, Kerry has his hands in so many international issues that it's easy for some to forget that he's not part of the Obama administration.
Earlier Wednesday, Gibbs slipped during an off-camera briefing and called Kerry, "Secretary Kerry." Gergen did the same thing during a telephone interview.
"I'm famous for making one or two slips in my public life," Kerry said with a weary smile. "So I wouldn't take that too seriously."
Associated Press writer Dina Cappiello contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS location of Friday's speech to the Council on Foreign Relations.)