Following U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election last week, Washington has been abuzz with speculation of potential candidates for various Cabinet positions, including defense secretary.
Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has made no indication that he would step down any time soon, but many defense insiders say Panetta wants to return to his home in California, where his wife, Sylvia, runs the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.
Names — such as Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy and former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel — have all been floated as potential candidates for the Pentagon’s top post. But defense experts believe the best way ahead for the Pentagon, which is facing $500 billion in budget cuts over the next decade, is consistent leadership at the top.
That would mean Panetta — who has been the Defense Department’s most vocal champion against these cuts — sticking around until the sequestration situation is figured out and as new commanders rotate in at some of the combatant commands.
“You can’t just bring somebody in and expect them to be up to speed in a couple of weeks,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine major general, former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer and current member of the Pentagon’s Defense Business Board.
Panetta has credibility within the military and in Congress and oversaw the development of a new defense strategy, which was released this year.
Sequestration would affect the Pentagon’s five-year spending plan, which is in development. Other looming national security issues include the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, a civil war in Syria, the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and Iran’s continued stockpiling of nuclear material.
These factors, Punaro said, are why a change in top leadership could be difficult in the coming months.
“When you’re in a sea state of five and 30-foot waves are breaking over the ship and you’re heading into the perfect storm, that’s not when you basically tell the helmsman and the captain of the ship, ‘Why don’t you retire … and try to parachute a new helmsman and captain [onto the] ship?’” Punaro said.
“Secretary Panetta certainly has earned a well-deserved opportunity to get back to his California home full time, but hopefully, as the great public servant that he is, he’d be willing to stay at the helm of the ship and get it through the perfect storm ... until we get from a typhoon sea state back to calm waters,” he said.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Panetta is focused on the mission at hand.
“There’s always a temptation shortly after an election to engage in what I call ‘Washington parlor games’ and to speculate about personnel changes that may or may not occur in the future,” he said during a Nov. 8 press briefing. “Secretary Panetta is focused squarely on his job today. He’s focused on the missions of the Department of Defense, and he’s not focused on his personal future.”
THE NEXT SECDEF
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to step down in the first few months of President Barack Obama’s second term. Among those said to be likely candidates for the job:
Ashton Carter — The deputy defense secretary is more than qualified for the job and was successful as the Pentagon’s chief management officer. In Obama’s first term, Carter was the Pentagon’s acquisition chief before being promoted to deputy defense secretary last year. The word in defense circles is Carter wants to be secretary. Most recently, Carter was the point man for the Defense Department’s large-scale response to deliver relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy. If Carter becomes the SecDef, the big question becomes, who replaces him?
Michèle Flournoy — Flournoy was the Pentagon’s policy chief under former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Panetta. She stepped down early this year to work on Obama’s
re-election campaign. If selected, she would make history by becoming the first female defense secretary. Some defense experts say Flournoy would also excel as a military service chief.
Chuck Hagel — The former Republican senator from Nebraska has been mentioned as a possible Panetta replacement and has served as the chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board. Obama kept Gates, a Republican, in his Cabinet, so Hagel’s selection would be in line with the trend.
Frank Kendall, undersecretary for acquisition technology and logistics — Kendall is poised to roll out an update to the Pentagon’s Better Buying Power weapon purchasing guidance launched by Carter during Obama’s first term. Just before last week’s election, Kendall said he was not circulating his resume before laying out a laundry list of his plans for improving DoD’s acquisition corps. With Obama securing a second term, Kendall will get a chance to act on those initiatives.
Comptroller Robert Hale — Hale has no plans to step down and serves at the pleasure of the president and defense secretary, a DoD spokeswoman said. Hale will be busy in the coming months finalizing the Pentagon’s 2014 budget request, which could have a wrench thrown in it by defense spending cuts, know as sequestration, or a deficit reduction plan that could include further defense cuts.
— Marcus Weisgerber