As he searches for his fourth Defense secretary in six years, President
Finding a candidate with deep
Only a day after the job came open, two leading prospects — former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy
In his previous two nominees, Obama placed little priority on Defense Department experience, focusing on someone who could oversee the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Hagel was a retired Republican senator from Nebraska who was critical of the wars of the last decade, while
Obama is now facing a different environment. With U.S. forces engaged in military operations in Iraq and Syria, and an incoming Republican majority in the
"The president clearly wants someone who can be more forceful and win a public debate defending his policies," said Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense who's currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "He wants someone who looks good on the Sunday talk shows."
Flournoy, who has long been considered a contender for the post, said in a letter Tuesday to the board of the Center for a New American Security, the think tank she heads, that she asked Obama not to consider her for the post, citing "family considerations," according to a person familiar with the matter who asked for anonymity to discuss the private communication.
With Flournoy out of the running, a top White House staffer said that Obama was still considering "a number of well-qualified candidates."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest emphasized that Obama was not looking for someone to take the Pentagon in a new direction, but rather to carry out "the strategy that the president has selected." A top priority is dealing with
Carter, 60, a theoretical physicist and former
He is known as a bold thinker who understands the Pentagon well and would not likely run into trouble winning Senate confirmation. He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate for both the No. 2 and No. 3. Pentagon positions.
When Carter resigned from the Pentagon in 2013, Sen.
"On many issues relating to defense and national security, Ash and I have had our differences," McCain said at the time. "Some have been profound. But Ash has always conducted himself in a manner that appreciated the valid concerns underlying opposing views."
Obama could also look outside to a candidate like retiring Sen.
Whoever is tapped for the job will need to be comfortable working closely with the president's national security staff. Panetta and another former Defense secretary,
"What's most needed is a secretary who will challenge assumptions and ask tough questions about policies for issues like [Islamic State] and Afghanistan, and help avert group-think," said Stephen D. Biddle, a military expert with the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. "I'm not sure that's what the White House wants, though."
It can be hard to predict how a new Defense secretary will affect policy decisions in the administration. When former President
Gates instead became a strong advocate for sending more troops to Iraq. After staying on under Obama, he backed the military's request to send more troops to Afghanistan, persuading Obama to back the increase, a decision Obama later came to regret.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, rebuffed questions at a news conference Tuesday about whether Hagel had been forced out because of policy disputes. Among other things, the White House was said to be impatient about the slow pace of prisoner transfers from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. In October, a rift emerged after Hagel penned a two-page memo — leaked to the press — criticizing the administration's approach to Syria.
"This was a mutual decision arrived at between the president and the secretary of Defense after a series of discussions that they had about the next two years," Kirby said, declining to say more about the discussions.
Hagel's departure is not a sign of coming changes to the U.S. strategy for fighting Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, Kirby added.
If Obama chooses Carter, he comes into office with far more recent Pentagon experience than Hagel had and close ties with senior military commanders.
Carter, who has a doctorate from
Carter came back to the Pentagon in 2009, serving as chief weapons buyer overseeing projects like the $400-billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. He rose to deputy Defense secretary, but left for Harvard after being passed over for the top spot.
Carter could prove to be more aggressive than the often self-effacing Hagel was in defending the administration's policies in public and at pushing back against White House attempts to keep tight limits on military operations.
Inside the Pentagon, other choices include Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has been discussed as a candidate in the past. Robert O. Work, the current deputy Defense secretary, is also a contender.
"The White House has shown they want someone who is onboard with their current policies," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the