Will Obama Pick a Woman to Lead the Pentagon?

As the president looks for a new defense secretary for his last two years in office, he knows he has another chance to make history.

US President Barack Obama salutes during a troop review at the Marine Barracks Evening Parade at the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC, June 27, 2014.

US President Barack Obama salutes during a troop review at the Marine Barracks Evening Parade at the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC, June 27, 2014.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Update, Nov. 25, 5 p.m. EDT: Michele Flournoy has withdrawn herself from consideration as the next Secretary of Defense, a person familiar with her decision confirmed. She had been considered the most likely prospect for a female successor to outgoing Secretary Chuck Hagel, who announced his resignation Monday. Flournoy on Tuesday told the board of directors for the Center for a New American Security, the think tank she co-founded and leads, that she'll stay on there and asked that President Barack Obama not consider her. Her decision was reported earlier Tuesday by Foreign Policy

Original story: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's resignation has the White House seeking his replacement and defense wonks tossing around the names of possible replacements—a popular Washington game that features the names of former and current Pentagon officials. But, in a departure from much of the past, there are a number of women in the conversation, a testament to the growing diversity in the armed services community. 

"It's highly appropriate and probably well overdue for a female to be considered for this post," said Deborah Harmon-Pugh, national campaign chairman for Women Veterans Rock, a coalition of women's veterans organizations and advocacy groups. "Of course there are women who are willing and waiting and prepared to assume this level of leadership," she said, saying a woman also would be "in tune" with the evolving nature of the U.S. military.

A female Pentagon chief could also help ease tensions with the U.S. Senate over the military's sexual-assault policies. A measure advocated by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in March that would have removed the chain of command from prosecuting such assaults fell just five votes short of the 60 required to pass. Congress did pass a measure that would provide enhanced counseling to victims, criminalize acts of retaliation, and block commanders from overturning guilty verdicts. Gillibrand, a rising star in the Democratic Party, has vowed to keep the pressure on the Defense Department.

Mackenzie Eaglen of the Republican-learning American Enterprise Institute, said the most frequently mentioned top candidates who share decent odds at getting confirmed by the Senate include Michele Flournoy, who held defense posts in the Obama and Clinton administrations. "I think the confirmation hearing itself will be interesting to get a sense of where the Republican Party is on national security these days," Eaglen said. "I think it's clear that the party is dissatisfied with the president's policies and not the person in the job, and that doesn’t change no matter who he recommends. I think the Senate would be just as pleased as the president to approve Michele if she were nominated."

President Barack Obama has withstood criticism that his administration doesn't include enough women, but he has named women to head two of the three most significant federal departments, Justice and State. A woman at the Pentagon would complete the trifecta. Here are some possibilities.

Michele Flournoy 

Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy testifies during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15, 2011, in Washington, D.C.
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy testifies during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15, 2011, in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Flournoy is Obama's former undersecretary for defense policy and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security think tank. A leading counterinsurgency proponent who backed a troop surge in Afghanistan, she's been floated before for defense secretary before but was passed over, most recently in favor of Hagel. She's a former Clinton administration aide who served on Obama's transition team.

She's also served on a number of boards and in consulting roles she may be asked to detail if nominated. Flournoy has spent the last two years at The Boston Consulting Group, where she studied ways to reduce the defense budget and streamline multiple accounting systems. While she had held multiple defense-related positions and has been confirmed by the Senate before, Flournoy is also considered a more political pick that could see resistance in the new Republican-controlled Senate. In 2012, she appeared in a campaign video for President Barack Obama criticizing Republican Mitt Romney's foreign policy.  

Deborah Lee James 

U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James speaks during the 2014 Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition on Sept. 15, 2014, in National Harbor, Md.
U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James speaks during the 2014 Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition on Sept. 15, 2014, in National Harbor, Md.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

James is the second woman to serve as Secretary of the U.S. Air Force. She was confirmed to that post last year, overseeing a $110 billion annual budget and dealing with the challenges of the federal budget sequester. She was an aide to the House Armed Services Committee from 1983 to 1993 and has extensive private sector ties through executive roles with Science Applications International Corporation and at United Technologies. And upside for her nomination is that she's already been through the Senate confirmation process, winning approval to her current post 79-6 in May 2013.

Kathleen Hicks

Before leaving the Pentagon last year, Hicks was the No. 2 policy official, and previously oversaw the development of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. She began work at the Defense Department in 1993 as a civil servant. She's now director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As is the case with James, Hicks is familiar with the Senate process, and members of the chamber. She was confirmed for her Pentagon post in May 2012 as part of a package of defense nominations.

Tammy Duckworth 

Then-House candidate Tammy Duckworth of Illinois speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 4, 2012.
Then-House candidate Tammy Duckworth of Illinois speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 4, 2012.
Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Among this group, Duckworth is probably least steeped  in the policy and budget workings of the Pentagon. But her personal story and veteran's credentials are compelling. The just re-elected Democratic congresswoman from Illinois is veteran of the Iraq war who lost both legs when insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at her helicopter. She's an Asian-American who was born in Thailand, and a former assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Of course, Hagel once made sense on paper, as a high-profile Republican who brought a sense of bipartisanship representation in Obama's cabinet. He never really clicked in a role in which his public remarks often conflicted with the administration's talking points and Obama and his inner circle were seen to micromanage decisions. Anyone Obama taps to replace Hagel—gender aside—will ask themselves whether they're willing to do the job under the constraints he faced, and, if not, whether they can negotiate for a stronger role. 

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Michele Flournoy's name was misspelled.

(Corrects spelling of Michele Flournoy's name.)
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