Name recognition. A team player. Well liked in D.C. Leon Panetta was by far the administration's safest choice for Secretary of Defense.
The White House needed someone to fill Bob Gates's oversized shoes without having to give too much in the way of introductory explanations to the public. Many, indeed virtually all, of the other potential candidates for this job that have been bandied about in the past few months are virtually unknown outside the Beltway. That might not have mattered as much had the presidential elections not been just around the corner.
With potential candidates not only testing the waters -- but, as in the case of Haley Barbour, already deciding that the water was not entirely to their liking -- the Obama team has already swung into campaign mode. The White House therefore needed to install someone at the Pentagon's helm who, while not a Bob Gates, was widely known and respected throughout the country. And most importantly the White House wanted someone who could be counted on (or at least that is the hope) not to make waves that could upset the course of a reelection campaign.
There will be ample opportunity for missteps-- and for making waves -- over the next 18 months, because the Obama administration faces some very tough choices in the run-up to the next presidential election. It has enmeshed itself in a Libyan civil war that is of minimal strategic importance to the United States, yet could create huge demands on American resources. Washington has already been dragged back into the war by European NATO allies who simply do not have the wherewithal to finish the job -- whatever that is -- by themselves. American drones may or may not rid Libya of Muammar al-Qaddafi -- he knows they are after him and will ensure that he remains outside their reach. If ever he goes, or if there is a stalemate, the Obama administration will find itself facing the need to rebuild Libya, or whatever part of it remains outside Qaddafi's grip. Yet with the U.S. economy on shaky ground, and an election looming, it will be tough for the White House to spend money to "reconstruct" without the strongest support from the Pentagon in particular. It will need a solid team player on the E ring of that building. Panetta gives them that team player.
In addition, there may yet be complications in Iraq as the administration pulls out its remaining troops and begins to transition U.S. forces out of Afghanistan. Finally, it is not at all clear that the latest White House plan to further reduce the defense budget by as much as several hundred billion over the next decade or less (the actual number for DoD awaits the arrival of a new secretary) will sit well with the military, or even the Pentagon civilians. The White House needs someone reliable to manage the DoD through what will be turbulent times.
Having worked well with DOD, Panetta has demonstrated that he is a reliable part of the administration's team. That understanding no doubt derives in no small part from his previous jobs as Director of the Office of Management and Budget and as White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton. In addition, as a former multi-term Congressman he understands what it takes to get reelected, and what pitfalls and controversies must be avoided in the process of doing so. He will not rock the boat over Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, or the budget. And he will do all he can to ensure that defense is not an issue in the forthcoming election; that the Republicans are certain to make it an issue will be no fault of his. The White House could not have made a safer choice; whether General Petreus, his putative successor at the CIA, will be as safe a choice remains to be seen.
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