Defense Secretary Robert Gates may be closer to being tapped for extended duty by Barack Obama because of the near certainty a Democrat -- possibly Hillary Clinton -- will be named secretary of state and Gates's willingness to accept a new team around him, according to Democratic and Republican experts.
It isn't certain that President-elect Obama will ask Gates to remain or that he would accept if asked. Still, a bipartisan group says Gates would provide stability at the Pentagon as the new administration inherits wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and confronts the global credit crisis.
"It would be a very powerful signal of bipartisanship and continuity," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican who sits on a board that advises Gates on policy issues and favors his being kept on under Obama.
Several Democrats have spoken favorably of keeping Gates, 65, who was appointed two years ago by President Bush. They include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
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Reed, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview that Gates has "done an extraordinary job."
"I would hope that in some capacity he could continue to serve," he said.
The chairman of the committee, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, believes Gates "has done a good job"' as secretary and is "deserving of consideration" for the Obama administration, said Levin spokeswoman Tara Andringa late yesterday.
Former Defense Secretary William Cohen said Gates would be an "outstanding" choice. Cohen said Gates would have to stay on the job for "a minimum of a year, I'd prefer to see two," to ensure proper continuity.
Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine, served under a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, from 1997 to 2001. He spoke in an interview today in New Delhi.
Obama told the CBS News program "60 Minutes"' in an interview aired last night that he plans to name a Republican to his Cabinet.
One potential obstacle to retaining Gates appears to be waning as Clinton, a New York senator, has emerged as the top candidate for secretary of state.
Earlier, two Republican senators close to Obama -- Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- were among the candidates to run the State Department. Choosing one of them would likely have scotched a Gates reappointment because Obama, a Democrat, would avoid naming Republicans to the two top national- security positions.
Obama and Clinton aides are trying to work out details of how she could meet Obama's rigorous financial-disclosure requirements for appointees, given the extensive business and philanthropic interests of her husband, Bill Clinton. Those include the Clinton Global Initiative, which won $8 billion in pledges at a September conference for worldwide projects to improve the living conditions of about 158 million people through health care, education and microloans.
During the weekend, people close to Obama and to Clinton reported progress in working out this arrangement.
If an agreement can't be reached, Obama is likely to turn to another Democrat, with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts at the top of the list, according to a top transition official.
The question of whether Gates would want to keep most of his team of appointees has been raised as a potential obstacle by some critics of the departing Bush administration, such as Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense during the 1980s.
The issue may be more apparent than real, according to Gingrich, retired Army General Barry McCaffrey and former Pentagon official Anthony Cordesman.
McCaffrey and Cordesman noted that Gates inherited from his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, many of the people now in senior policy and management posts.
"When he came in, he basically didn't bring anyone, so I don't think he'd have a problem doing that again,"' McCaffrey said in an interview. "Gates has demonstrated that he can work with the team you issue him."
Cordesman, who served as director of intelligence assessment at the Pentagon, said Gates is likely to be more concerned with policy than personnel.
"Gates is a professional, not a partisan political figure,"' said Cordesman, now an analyst at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He's worked through transitions and with different administrations."
Cordesman said some current appointees, such as Undersecretary for Policy Eric Edelman, have made known they are leaving when the new administration takes office. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Edelman, like all political appointees, is planning to hand in his resignation. Edelman is close to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Gingrich said the one issue that might prevent Gates from continuing would be Iraq. If Obama is determined to stick to his campaign position of withdrawing all U.S. combat forces within 16 months, that would be a problem, because Gates and the senior uniformed military officers oppose a strict timetable, Gingrich said.
The Iraqi government negotiated an accord with the Bush administration that allows U.S. forces to stay until 2011.
"They would have to sit down and hammer it out, but they are both serious, professional people,"' said Gingrich, speaking of Obama and Gates. "If President-elect Obama would like it to happen, I think it can be worked out."'
Aides to both Gates and Obama have kept alive the prospect that Gates may remain, saying both men are open to it. Gates hasn't commented since Obama was elected on Nov. 4.
"I have nothing new to say on that subject," he said at a Nov. 12 news conference.
Since becoming secretary, Gates has rebuilt relationships with members of Congress and uniformed officers that frayed under Rumsfeld.
Gates's support among lawmakers of both parties, as well as his steady management of the sprawling department, would make him attractive to Obama, says Thomas Wilkerson, a former Marine major general and Pentagon official.
"He's managing a situation of the nation at war on two fronts with threats on other fronts, and he's managing it better than it's ever been managed during the current president's tenure,"' said Wilkerson, who served as an aide to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "He's righted the department."