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.
Far more political attention has centered on the chief diplomatic job of secretary of state.
Obama is believed almost certain to pick Kerry or U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, with Obama's considerations of his choice so closely held that even members of his innermost circle are asking each other which way he may go. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has long announced her plans to leave and hopes to do so soon.
The White House is considering packaging the state and defense choices with the flourish of a unified announcement, if the pieces come together. The president wants to choose nominees not just on their merits, the officials said, but on how well their styles and philosophy mesh with other members of the Cabinet who will hold overlapping portfolios.
That is particularly true for the leaders of state and defense. They are the top faces of his security apparatus, the leaders who bracket Obama at Cabinet meetings, the ones central to an integrated approach toward coping with international crises. Officials close to Obama said a joint announcement could present a stronger message.
For the State job, Obama has strong ties to both candidates. Rice is a close friend, and aides say the two are in lockstep on foreign policy. Kerry was an early backer of Obama during his 2008 presidential bid, a valuable envoy abroad, a help in his re-election bid and a contender to be his first secretary of state.
A big factor in Obama's decision is how much early capital he would have to spend on a confirmation fight. While Kerry has the backing of his longtime Senate colleagues, Rice is facing withering criticism from some Republicans for her initial account of the deadly attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in September.
A contentious confirmation fight could send Rice into the job with weakened support and use up some of the tough votes he may need from allies in the Senate later. Still, Obama has already set a tone that he may choose Rice regardless.
A decision on new leadership for the CIA is not as urgent. That's partly because Acting Director Michael Morell is still dealing with the fallout of David Petraeus' resignation over an extramarital affair and the battles with lawmakers over the events that led to the death of four Americans in Libya.
Morell is highly respected within the administration and seen as a top contender.
Other candidates are the White House's top counterterrorism and homeland security advisor, John Brennan, and the Pentagon's top intelligence official, Undersecretary for Defense Intelligence Michael Vickers, a former CIA officer and Green Beret. Also possible is the former senator Hagel, should he miss out for the top Pentagon job. Hagel co-chairs Obama's intelligence advisory board and held senior positions on the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees.
A near-term shakeup at the Defense Department would come as the Pentagon faces a flurry of decisions on troop levels in Afghanistan and budgets. The looming end-of-the year spending cuts the White House and Congress are seeking to avert would hit the Pentagon particularly hard.
At Defense, Hagel would give Obama a whiff of bipartisanship, and could be the only Republican in the Cabinet if Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood leaves, as expected.
Flournoy would be the first woman to lead the Defense Department. She served in the Pentagon under Panetta as undersecretary of defense for policy, resigning early this year. She served as a foreign policy adviser to Obama during his re-election campaign.
Carter, who has served as deputy defense secretary for the past year, is a protege of former Defense Secretary William Perry.
Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier, Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns contributed to this report.
Follow Ben Feller at www.twitter.com/BenFellerDC
Follow Julie Pace at www.twitter.com/jpaceDC