The Obama administration is portraying CIA Director Leon Panetta, the president’s pick to replace Robert Gates as Defense secretary, as a veteran Washington hand with a mix of operational expertise and management savvy.
If he wins confirmation from the Senate and becomes the first Democrat to lead the Pentagon since 1997, Panetta will need to rely on those skills.
Panetta, whom President Obama will announce as his nominee on Thursday, will inherit a Pentagon that has completed a round of belt-tightening under Gates and is now getting ready for further cuts.
Obama two weeks ago said he wanted to find another $400 billion in savings from defense spending over the next 12 years, something Gates was said to be resisting. Now Panetta will be the man charged with pushing those cuts through a reluctant Department of Defense.
Shifting Panetta to DoD “probably means bigger cuts to the Defense budget,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.
“Secretary Gates was strongly committed to maintaining a robust defense posture, but Panetta will be more interested in getting along with the White House, which must find ways of cutting the deficit,” Thompson said.
Panetta resisted moving to the Pentagon, but was convinced after a call Monday from Obama. GOP congressional aides and Defense insiders said he will face a difficult task in lining up support in the military for further cuts.
“Putting Panetta in as Defense secretary means Obama now has an ally at the Pentagon,” said one senior GOP congressional aide. “He will be more inclined to agree with the president on a number of issues where Gates might have pushed back or disagreed with the president."
“Panetta will have to enact the cuts that Obama wants,” the GOP aide continued. “While Gates has control of the [four military] services, they’re likely to challenge Panetta. That makes SecDef a tougher job than CIA director.”
Andrew Krepinevich, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, predicted the military would fight future cuts, and that it will be difficult for Obama to win reductions from a GOP Congress even with the nation facing an escalating debt crisis.
“Whoever succeeds Gates is going to face a difficult set of challenges, and may not have much time to address them. There is barely a year before the 2012 presidential election campaign,” Krepinevich said.
Panetta might not be around then to see through the cuts, though — Krepinevich and others see him as a caretaker at the Pentagon, who could be replaced at the beginning of a second term if Obama wins reelection.
“Depending upon the outcome, we could have a new Defense secretary in January 2013. Thus, Gates's successor will also confront the possibility that the Pentagon bureaucracy will see him as a transitional figure,” Krepinevich said.
Panetta, a former House Budget Committee chairman and chief of staff in the Clinton administration, is widely seen as a Washington veteran who knows how to get things done. He is considered to have solid working relationships with senior lawmakers in both parties, and there already is an expectation that he will win confirmation.
“I’m told he has the brains,” said one former Senate aide. “He surely has the experience to deal with … Congress.”
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, a senior administration official highlighted Panetta’s operational expertise as CIA boss, his efforts to “reinvigorate morale” there and his intricate knowledge of federal budgeting in touting his appointment.
Panetta would also be the first Democrat to serve as secretary of Defense since William Perry held the position from 1994 to 1997 under President Clinton. Besides inheriting a budget fight, he would also be charged with leading the Pentagon through three ongoing military operations.
But aides and Defense sources predicted a top charge for Panetta will be to keep alive the internal cost-trimming program Gates initiated last year. That effort uncovered more than $100 billion in savings, most of which was redirected into hardware accounts, with some monies going to help pare the deficit.
While the outgoing Defense secretary terminated or truncated more than 50 hardware programs after Obama took office, he has argued strongly in recent months against going any further.
Gates spent ample political capital to convince White House officials to approve using those savings to beef up hardware accounts, warning against a Defense budget-slashing drill that would create a “hollow force.”
Sources said it is largely unknown where Panetta stands on that issue, but several predicted he is unlikely to fight as hard against additional weapons program terminations as Gates has during his final months on the job.
Since the 2012 defense budget already has been delivered to Congress — which rarely terminates hardware programs on its own — most sources conclude the 2013 Pentagon spending plan is the most likely vehicle for any major hardware program terminations.
Any major program kills in the 2013 budget will come after a DoD-led “comprehensive” national-security review ordered by Obama as part of the effort to reduce spending.
Part of that study will be examining missions the military might throw overboard. Leading this assessment will be one of Panetta’s first tasks.
“A new role for the military and the United States would shed unnecessary missions, and relieve some of the burdens on our troops,” said Chris Preble, director of foreign policy at the Cato Institute. “In all likelihood, such a change must be directed from the Oval Office, not the Pentagon.”