Gen. Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to lead the Pentagon, is poised to make history as the first Black secretary of defense and is “the person we need in this moment,” Biden says – but first, he will have to overcome resistance from the President-elect’s own party.
The epic nature of Austin’s journey – from a childhood in deeply segregated Alabama, through a military still plagued with racial inequity, to the pinnacle of US national defense – might be matched only by the scale of the challenges that would face him there.
In tapping Austin, Biden is choosing a former colleague he knows well from years working together during the Obama administration, a period that saw Austin lead US Central Command, serve as vice chief of staff of the Army, and commanding general of US forces in Iraq. Austin and Biden also share a personal link.
Biden’s son Beau served on Austin’s staff in Iraq and the two forged a close relationship there, sitting side by side at Mass almost every Sunday and maintaining the friendship when Beau returned from deployment, according to a source familiar with Biden’s decision.
‘A comfort level’
Biden and Austin have “known each other for a long time,” a second source said. “There’s a comfort level.” This source added that “the historic nature of the pick … is something Biden is excited about. Especially given the history of the US military being barrier breakers in a lot of areas.”
Biden himself cast his choice in light of unprecedented challenges facing the military and his deep familiarity with Austin, a fellow Catholic.
“In his more than 40 years in the United States Army, Austin met every challenge with extraordinary skill and profound personal decency,” Biden wrote in The Atlantic. “He is a true and tested soldier and leader. I’ve spent countless hours with him, in the field and in the White House Situation Room. I’ve sought his advice, seen his command, and admired his calm and his character. He is the definition of a patriot.”
“Austin’s many strengths and his intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government are uniquely matched to the challenges and crises we face,” Biden wrote. “He is the person we need in this moment.”
Biden will formally introduce Austin as his nominee at a Wednesday event in Wilmington, Delaware.
If Austin gets the job, the former battlefield commander would join an elite fraternity of African Americans who have risen to the executive branch at a time when a charged national debate about racial justice is forcing a reckoning in the military as well.
As a decorated officer known for his deep public reserve, but not nimble political instincts, Austin would be stepping onto the global stage as he navigates the work of reshaping the Defense Department while progressive Democrats call to scale back military funding.
At the Pentagon, he would inherit an institution strained by political tensions over the last four years, analysts say, one that is juggling rising threats such as China, ongoing risks from the likes of North Korea, the need to develop new capabilities in cyber, space and artificial intelligence, and manage the distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine as the pandemic continues to ravage the US.
“He’s going to have his work cut out for him,” said Eric Edelman, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, diplomat and White House official.
Austin’s “trailblazing career,” as Biden put it, suggests he has the drive and work ethic required.
The 67-year-old was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1953, a time of sharply truncated opportunity for African Americans. He retired in 2016 as a four-star general awarded the military’s third highest military decoration for valor, five of the highest non-combat related military awards and a slew of other honors.
‘Only the sixth’
Defense Department data shows that while Black service members represent 19% of all enlisted personnel, they make up only 9% of the mostly White, male officer corps. Biden noted in The Atlantic that Austin was “the 200th person ever to attain the rank of an Army four-star general, but only the sixth African American.”
Austin got there through West Point, the elite military academy that is only now beginning to come to terms with a legacy of racism. He went on later to earn a Master’s in Education from Auburn University and a Master’s in Business Management from Webster University.
Austin has had some stumbles along the way. His tenure as commander at CENTCOM coincided with the rise of ISIS, a period that witnessed the terror group’s capture of major cities in Syria and Iraq.
At a 2015 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Austin received a stinging rebuke from then-Chairman Sen. John McCain for his relatively optimistic assessment about the fight against ISIS despite the group’s major advancements on the battlefield.
“There haven’t been any dramatic gains on either side,” Austin told the hearing, speaking about a year after ISIS captured Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.
“I’ve never seen a hearing that is as divorced from the reality of every outside expert and what you are saying,” McCain retorted.
Unlike some of his predecessors and successors at US Central Command, Austin never publicly expressed criticism or opposition to administration policy, a reserve that likely made him an attractive pick for Biden, who famously clashed with military brass at the start of the Obama administration over the size of the military footprint in places such as Afghanistan.
Now, as Austin looks to lead the world’s largest employer, with 1.3 million active duty troops and a total of more than 2.8 million employees, his first hurdles will lie in the US Senate.
Democrats are raising concerns about his ties to the defense industry and investment firms – a complaint raised about other candidates for the defense secretary job and some of Biden’s nominees to other Cabinet positions. Austin’s positions on the boards of the investment firm Pine Island Capital Partners and defense contractor Raytheon have drawn criticism.
More urgently for the Biden team, Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would vote first on Austin’s nomination, are stressing the need for civilian leadership at the helm of the Pentagon.
Austin does not meet the standard set by law requiring defense secretaries to have been out of active-duty service for seven years before taking the top civilian post and some of Biden’s closest allies are squeamish – if not outright opposed – to granting the waiver that would allow him to do so.
Waiver battle ahead
Waivers have only been granted twice since the defense secretary position was created in 1947, most recently for James Mattis, President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary.
While some Democrats, including Jack Reed, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, are showing signs of softening on the issue, others have been adamant.
“I will not support the waiver,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “It is exciting and historic,” he said of Austin’s expected nomination, “but I believe that a waiver of the seven-year rule would contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control over a nonpolitical military. The principle is essential to our democracy.”
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who opposed the waiver for Mattis, said he would do so again for Austin. “I thought Mattis was a great secretary. And I think this guy is gonna be a great secretary of defense,” he said. “I just think that we ought to look at the rules.”
The Biden team has done some “engagement with people on the Hill about a waiver,” the second source familiar with the decision told CNN. This source said the Biden-Harris transition team is “hopeful leaders of the committees and members responsible for bringing that forward will support that,” particularly given the historic nature of the nomination.
According to a transition official, the transition team has so far engaged with more than 100 House and Senate offices on Austin’s nomination and waiver.
Austin is also expected to speak with Congressional leadership, including Senate and House Armed Services Committee members, “early on” as he begins the confirmation process, according to the official.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, himself a retired Black four-star Army general, offered Austin a high-profile endorsement on Wednesday, calling him a “superb choice” and saying Congress “should have no concern” in waiving the requirement.
Edelman, who is now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the waiver “is a huge challenge for the Biden administration,” and noted the Democratic Party platform said it would restore civil-military balance at the Defense Department.
“It almost inevitably comes out as being portrayed as some reservation about Austin and the historic nature of his nomination, it gets all wrapped up in this issue, it’s really not about him, it’s about institutional equities and balance,” Edelman said.
CNN’s Jake Tapper, Ryan Browne, Barbara Starr, Ted Barrett, Manu Raju and Jessica Dean contributed to this report