Even before Chuck Hagel's resignation from the Defense Department became official, the names of a pair of longtime Pentagon veterans had already surfaced as top contenders to replace him as secretary: Michele Flournoy and Ashton Carter.
Flournoy and Carter have been through this wringer before: Both were floated as possible Pentagon chiefs earlier in Obama's presidency, and both have served at the highest levels of the department. A third candidate, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said through a spokesman on Monday he was not interested in the post.
In replacing Hagel, President Obama must choose his fourth Defense secretary in less than six years and the first who will face confirmation hearings led by a Republican Senate. His nominee will also be presiding over a military much more deeply engaged overseas than Obama ever hoped or imagined it would be three-quarters of the way through his presidency. American troops are fighting a new war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even as their combat role in Afghanistan has been extended, and the U.S. military is battling an Ebola epidemic in Africa and eyeing provocations by Russia and China to the east.
Obama has the chance to make a historic choice by selecting Flournoy as the first woman to lead the Defense Department. Now the CEO of the Center for a New American Security, she served in a senior role at the Pentagon in the Clinton administration and then returned to take the department's third-ranking post for most of Obama's first term. Carter has an equally distinguished record, having also served under Clinton before rising to become deputy secretary of Defense in the Obama administration. He left government a year ago after helping Hagel through his transition at the Pentagon.