President Obama nominated Ashton Carter as his fourth secretary of Defense on Friday, calling him one of the nation's “foremost national security leaders.”
“He knows the Department of Defense inside and out, all of which means on day one, he'll be ready to hit the ground running,” Obama said in the Roosevelt Room before a crowd that included Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and national security adviser Susan Rice.
Notably absent from the event was Chuck Hagel, who Carter is replacing. Obama announced Hagel’s forced resignation last week amid tensions between the Pentagon and National Security Council.
Republicans have generally lauded Carter, who had been rumored to be the pick for the last week. Obama said Carter is “respected and trusted” on both sides of the aisle.
Carter, a physicist, served as deputy secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013. He’s led procurement efforts for the Department of Defense.
Obama credited Carter as an innovator who helped create the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which oversaw the dismantling of thousands of nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union, and as a reformer "who's never been afraid to cancel old or inefficient weapons programs."
Carter, 60, said on Friday that he accepted the top position at the Pentagon because of “the seriousness of the strategic challenges that we face.”
Hagel decided at the last minute not to attend his replacement's announcement. He’s leaving the post, after concern grew in the White House that he wasn't the best person to lead the Defense Department's efforts to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
At the White House briefing on Friday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama would have liked to have Hagel at the Carter announcement.
"No doubt about it," he said.
But he added, that he "wouldn't characterize it as a surprise, I would characterize it as a decision made by Mr. Hagel."
On Friday, a Defense Department official said Hagel “believes strongly that this day belongs to Ash Carter and his nomination to be the next Secretary of Defense,” according to a White House pool report.
Sources say Hagel — who entered the job in February 2013 — had major differences with Obama and that there was an ongoing tension between his department and the national security staff at the White House.
But Hagel disputed that notion in an interview this week with Reuters, saying the decision to leave the role was “mutual.”
“This was a mutual decision based on the discussions that we had,” Hagel said. “I don't think there's ever one overriding or defining decision in situations like this, unless there's some obvious issue, and there wasn't, between either one of us.”
The two defense secretaries who preceded Hagel, Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, and Leon Panetta, also complained that they were micromanaged by the White House on various issues.
Republicans indicated in recent days that they are likely to support Carter's nomination and that his confirmation process should be a relatively easy one.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Carter “knows the Pentagon, and he knows that some reforms are essential if we are to meet the national security needs of the country.”
“If confirmed, his challenge will be to resist the micromanagement of the White House staff that has plagued his three predecessors and to speak candidly to Congress and the American people on what is required to defend the country,” Thornberry said in a statement. “The world is growing more dangerous, and strong, stable U.S. leadership is needed now more than ever.”
Incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) praised Carter's nomination, noting, "I have worked closely with him on a number of issues, including defense acquisition reform."
However, McCain added, he hopes Carter "fully understands — as previous Secretaries of Defense have strongly attested — he will likely have limited influence over the tight circle around the president who apparently control the entire strategic decision-making process."
Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), who will be the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee next year, described Carter as an “effective leader who has demonstrated a firm sense of integrity and sound judgment throughout his career in public service. His command of national security policy and his commitment to our men and women in uniform will serve him well as our next Secretary of Defense.”
Reed said he would work with colleagues on the Armed Services panel to “ensure Ash receives a fair and expeditious nomination process.”