President Barack Obama could name his next defense secretary in December, far sooner than expected and perhaps in a high-powered package announcement with his choice for secretary of state, several senior administration officials tell The Associated Press.
The personnel moves, coupled with Obama's coming choice for a new leader of the Central Intelligence Agency, will be viewed by U.S. allies and enemies alike as signal of how he will pursue national security in a second term. All of his choices will be subject to Senate confirmation, which itself is a significant factor in his decisions.
The top names under consideration for defense secretary are former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, former top Pentagon official Michele Flournoy, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Among those, Kerry is seen as desiring the secretary of state's job more.
While Obama has made no final decisions on Cabinet vacancies, announcements could come as soon as next week.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has made clear he did not intend to stay for a second term but he has never publicly discussed the timing of his departure, widely thought to be down the road in 2013. Yet Obama's thinking on Panetta's replacement has quietly advanced, aided by a strong list of candidates, officials said.
One senior U.S. official said Panetta is expected to stay on the job at least through the Jan 21 inauguration ceremony for Obama, another sign that the president is close to naming a new defense chief. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal White House thinking.