The Senate approved Ashton Carter Thursday as the next secretary of defense in a vote that saw only five nays — all from Republicans — and 93 yays.
Carter’s nomination process was relatively stress free for the Obama administration as he received round support from both sides of the aisle to include Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who set up road blocks for past Obama nominees to include his friend, Chuck Hagel.
A Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in theoretical physics, Carter never served in the military, but he has plenty of experience navigating the halls of the Pentagon. He served as the deputy defense secretary before stepping down last year and earned wide praise for his expertise on the military’s acquisition process.
Carter made waves when he oversaw the development of the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle program, an effort that sent thousands of these heavily armored trucks to Iraq and Afghanistan at a time when troops were getting killed at a high rate by road side bombs.
Obama turned to Carter to take the reins of the Pentagon after he was reportedly turned down by other first choices to include Michele Flournoy, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security. But both sides of the aisle seemed to agree, Obama picked the right man for the job.
Carter takes over the Pentagon at a time when its service chiefs are saying they don’t have enough money in their budgets to continue responding to threats like ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Russia on the Ukraine border while also modernizing and resetting their forces. The common refrain from critics is the Pentagon would have the money it needed if it would stop wasting millions of dollars on over budget or failed weapons programs.
Officials inside and outside the military point fingers at the Pentagon’s acquisition system saying it’s ill equipped to supply troops with the technologically advanced weapons and equipment needed on the battlefield.
Carter enters the Pentagon as a champion for reforming that system and some defense analysts and lawmakers on Capitol Hill believe he’s one of the few bureaucrats capable of delivering necessary changes. Carter joins Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall — two men who have also worked to try and fix the most common problems with the acquisition system — namely its lack of agility and seeming inability to keep projects on time and on budget.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called Carter, Work and Kendall a “dream team of wonkiness” when speaking to Philip Ewing of Politico on the subject. Lawmakers signaled that Carter’s acquisition chops played into their decision to support his nomination.
Carter will have about 18 months to prove he is the right man to lead the Pentagon as campaigns to take Obama’s job as commander-in-chief have begun for the 2016 presidential election. It’s not unheard of for a new president to keep a defense secretary on board. In fact, Obama did so with Robert Gates. But it is rare.
Carter seemingly has the support of Congress and the White House — a rare accomplishment. But now the hard work starts and it will be telling to see how long that support remains as Capitol Hill sharpens its knives for the budget battle and the debates on the draft resolution to fight ISIS.