The betting odds are increasingly strong that former Obama administration defense official Michele Flournoy will be returning to the Pentagon as the first female secretary of defense in the nation’s history.
While handicapping remains fierce for other slots in presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s national security and diplomatic team, it would be major surprise at this point if the well-known and well-regarded Ms. Flournoy was not picked to head the Department of Defense.
“A Democratic administration would want to be the first to appoint a female secretary of defense,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser for the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) International Security Program. “Her background — and this first opportunity — would make her certainly a very strong candidate.”
Ms. Flournoy’s time in the Pentagon began under former President Bill Clinton, when she served as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction.
She then spent several years with CSIS and went on to cofound Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security, which specializes in strategy to advance national security. Ms. Flournoy returned to the Pentagon under President Obama as undersecretary with the lead role in shaping the department’s policy agenda.
Her relationship with Mr. Biden dates back over a decade, and he jokingly volunteered in 2016 to vouch for her for the job as defense secretary in the hoped-for Hillary Clinton administration.
“Well, madam secretary I’m writing a recommendation for her, you know,” Mr. Biden told a CSIS audience that year.
Mr. Cancian, who previously worked in the Office of Management and Budget overseeing military spending, said one of Ms. Flournoy’s first priorities would likely be putting a full stop to the military’s role in construction for the southern border wall.
He said he would expect the Biden administration to pull existing contracts, funding and service members who are deployed to work on Mr. Trump’s signature issue. The next defense secretary will also likely move early on to reverse Mr. Trump’s order banning transgender service members from serving in an active capacity, Mr. Cancian said.
But she may also be required to deal with the budgetary fallout if the Pentagon sees its funds cut by the new administration to finance some of Mr. Biden’s social programs.
Although widely expected to land at the Pentagon, Ms. Flournoy’s name has also been floated for the job of national security adviser, a job that would keep her much closer to the new president on a daily basis.
And although she is an experienced Washington hand, her potential selection as defense secretary still marks a historic moment.
“Having a woman serve as secretary of defense or the deputy secretary of defense is a big deal because it tells all of the women all of the young women who are in high school, maybe even as young as middle school, that this is something they can aspire to,” said Rachel McCaffrey, the executive director of Women in Defense.
Ms. McCaffrey, who served in the Air Force for 28 years, said picking Ms. Flournoy would broaden “the talent pool for America as a whole. It helps ensure that we get the best possible leaders into those critical positions to ensure the safety and security of the United States.”