12/05/2012 05:24 EST | Updated 02/04/2013 05:12 EST

Who will replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state?

As former presidential adviser Stephen Hess so astutely pointed out, to listen to the media, one would think there are only two people in the United States who are qualified to replace Hillary Clinton as the next secretary of state.

With Clinton having made it known that she soon intends to depart the high-profile post, the speculation over possible replacements has squarely focused on UN Ambassador Susan Rice and Democratic Senator John Kerry.

The guessing game has begun in earnest for the cabinet position described by foreign policy expert Aaron David Miller as "the second-best job in Washington and carries a status no other cabinet position holds, period."

It would be difficult to fault the punditry for focusing on Rice in particular, who is believed to be Barack Obama's favourite to take over and who has a strong and personal relationship with the president.

Rice, while known to rankle some for her blunt style, has a credentialed background in foreign policy, dating back to when she worked in former president Bill Clinton's administration at the National Security Council.

But she has drawn criticism over her role in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Republicans have accused her of not being truthful when she appeared in news interviews days after, claiming the attack was the result of an anti-Islam video, while playing down any link to al-Qaeda.

Some Republicans have suggested that Rice, who has said she was just presenting the intelligence she was given at the time, could be in for a battle during the nomination process.

"Assuming the president wanted Susan Rice, the question now is how much political capital is he willing to spend on getting her confirmed by the U.S. Senate," Hess, who works as a governance studies analyst at the Brookings Institute, told CBC News.

"I think he would probably get her through. He's got a pretty full plate of very important issues right now. He should know that his best chance of doing anything in a second term is immediate. So is he going to spend some of that time … on the confirmation of a cabinet minister?"

Kerry would find easier passage

The other popular contender is Kerry, a senior statesman, chairman of the foreign relations committee, who played Republican candidate Mitt Romney during Obama's preparation debates.

Republican Arizona Senator John McCain, who has been vocal in his criticism against Rice, has already suggested that Kerry would sail though the nomination process. While senators may be more apt to confirm one of their own, Republicans would favour Kerry for political reasons as well.

The Democrats, who hold a slim lead in the Senate, could lose a seat in Massachusetts if Kerry departed to become secretary of state. Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, who recently lost his Senate seat to Democrat Elizabeth Warren, is still quite popular in the state despite his defeat. He would still have a good chance of capturing that Senate seat if a special election were held to replace Kerry.

However, Obama could get both Rice and Kerry by placing Rice as secretary of state and giving Kerry the secretary of defence post.

But Hess said that despite all the attention being focused on Rice and Kerry, he wouldn't be surprised if the job went to neither of them.

"Why should it? There are other people as well."

Some have speculated that National Security Adviser Tom Donilon could shift over to become secretary of state or that William Burns, the deputy secretary of state, could get promoted to the position.

There have been some suggestions that Obama could choose a Republican, like former senator Richard Lugar, who lost the Senate primary to Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock, or Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and presidential candidate who worked in the Obama administration as an ambassador to China.

But Lugar at 80 may be considered too old for the spot and Huntsman may have rankled some within the White House for diving into the race for the presidency.

Joe Biden?

"I read an odd column. Somebody was proposing Joe Biden," Hess said. "Constitutionally, it's possible. It is not a good idea because you should never appoint somebody to a job like that if you can't fire them, and he can't fire the vice-president, so that's not a good idea. But I could see what the person was thinking about. He's a qualified person."

And what about Bill Clinton, whose popularity seems to continue to climb?

"That's a sort of game people play because people have only a limited number of names that pop into their head. I could name Ivy League presidents, distinguished lawyers, foundation heads who are the sort of people in the past that do get picked but are not the names that would just pop into someone's head like a Bill Clinton. No, I don't think that's about to happen."

Hess said the choice doesn't necessarily have to be someone with a foreign policy background.

"If you look at the history of the secretary of state, they've come over for all different reasons, whether it's a Colin Powell or an Al Haig. So you never really know until they're there how good they are going to be," he said. "Two of the best in recent years would have been George Schultz and James Baker — neither of which were experienced in foreign policy. They weren't like Henry Kissinger and spent their lives delving into the Austro-Hungarian Empire."

But Aaron David Miller, writing in Foreign Policy, says that in the end it may not really matter much who the president chooses.

"Whether it's John Kerry, Susan Rice, Tom Donilon, or some mystery candidate who will surprise us all, the next secretary will have to deal with Barack Obama, withholder-in-chief — a guy who dominates and doesn't delegate big foreign policy decisions," Miller wrote.

"Perhaps in his second term, a more confident Obama will empower a true loyalist — someone he really trusts, like Susan Rice — and allow him or her to run with some truly big issues. But don't count on it."