Tuesday’s re-election of President Obama triggered immediate speculation about the future of Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who will turn 75 in June. Mr. Panetta, defense secretary since June 2011, has had a long career in government and is said by associates to be ready to return to private life in Northern California, where he frequently visits and owns land.
Asked about the secretary’s future, Pentagon spokesman George Little told Inside the Ring:
“Panetta is honored to serve as secretary, thoroughly enjoys the job, and that’s where his focus is. His eyes are now on the [Defense] Department and its missions, not on his personal future.”
Pentagon insiders say Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter is known to be eager to fill the top position at the Pentagon should Mr. Panetta decide to step down. Mr. Carter was the Pentagon’s acquisitions undersecretary from 2009 until October 2011, when he became the No. 2 official.
Another candidate for defense secretary is said to be Michele Flournoy, who held the post of undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to February.
Mr. Panetta said in a statement to Pentagon employees on Wednesday that throughout the presidential campaign, “we at the Department of Defense have been squarely focused on our mission of defending the nation.”
“Now that the campaign is over, we will stay just as focused on that critical mission,” he said, as the Pentagon prepares to grapple with a looming $660 billion cut in defense spending mandated by Congress in the coming months.
Ms. Flournoy is a supporter and friend of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also is expected to step down after logging more than 900,000 miles of travel.
Should Mrs. Clinton move on from Foggy Bottom, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice is expected to be named as her replacement.
However, Ms. Rice is likely to face a bruising confirmation battle before the Senate over her public comments calling the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, the result of spontaneous anti-U.S. demonstrations.
Now that President Obama has won re-election, national security members and aides in Congress are bracing for the president’s pre-election promise to Russian leader Dmitri Medvedev to show “more flexibility” in talks with Moscow on missile defenses and other strategic issues.
Mr. Obama was overheard during a summit meeting in Seoul in March telling Mr. Medvedev that he needed Russia to back off from applying pressure on him and his administration to make concessions in missile-defense talks on U.S. and European defenses in Europe.
The president said he needed space “particularly on missile defense” because “this is my last election … after my election, I have more flexibility.”