WASHINGTON Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been in discussions with the White House about leaving her job next year to become head of the World Bank, sources familiar with the discussions said on Thursday.
The former first lady and onetime political rival to President Barack Obama quickly became one of the most influential members of his Cabinet after she began her tenure at State in early 2009.
She has said publicly she did not plan to stay on at the State Department for more than four years. Associates say Clinton has expressed interest in having the World Bank job should the bank's current president, Robert Zoellick, leave at the end of his term, in the middle of 2012.
"Hillary Clinton wants the job," said one source who knows the secretary well.
A second source also said Clinton wants the position.
A third source said Obama had already expressed support for the change in her role. It is unclear whether Obama has formally agreed to nominate her for the post, which would require approval by the 187 member countries of the World Bank.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney denied the discussions. "It's totally wrong," he told Reuters.
A spokesman for Clinton, Philippe Reines, denied Clinton wanted the job, had conversations with the White House about it or would accept it.
People familiar with the situation, told of the denials from the White House and State Department, reaffirmed the accuracy of the report.
Revelations of the discussions could hurt Clinton's efforts as America's top diplomat if she is seen as a lame duck in the job at a time of great foreign policy challenges for the Obama administration.
Under normal circumstances, names of potential candidates for the World Bank would not surface more than a year before the post becomes vacant. But the timing of the discussions is not unusual this year given the sudden opening of the top job at the bank's sister organization, the IMF, after Dominique Strauss-Kahn's resignation following his arrest on charges of sexually assaulting a hotel maid in New York.
The World Bank provides billions of dollars in development funds to the poorest countries and is also at the center of issues such as climate change, rebuilding countries emerging from conflict and recently the transitions to democracy in Tunisia and Egypt.
WOMAN HAS NEVER HEADED WORLD BANK OR IMF
The head of the International Monetary Fund has always been a European and the World Bank presidency has always been held by an American.
That gentleman's agreement between Europe and the United States is being aggressively challenged by fast-growing emerging market economies that have been shut out of the process.
The United States has not publicly supported the European candidate for the IMF, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, although Washington's support is expected.
Neither institution has ever been headed by a woman.
If Clinton were to leave State, John Kerry, a close Obama ally who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is among those who could be considered as a possible replacement for her.
Clinton's star power and work ethic were seen by Obama as crucial qualities for her role as the nation's top diplomat, even though she did not arrive in the job with an extensive foreign policy background.
She has embraced the globe-trotting aspects of the job, logging many hours on plane trips to nurture alliances with countries like Japan and Britain and to visit hot spots like Afghanistan and countries in the Middle East.
She has long been vocal on global development issues, especially the need for economic empowerment of women and girls in developing countries. She has made that part of her focus at State. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has also been involved in those issues through his philanthropic work at the Clinton Global Initiative.
(Editing by Kristin Roberts, David Storey and Peter Cooney)