From NBC's Jim Miklaszewski
In 10 weeks, Obama will be sworn in as president, the Bush Administration comes to an inglorious end, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates could finally retire to his home overlooking Big Lake in Washington State. To remind him, Gates carries a thin plastic business-like card embedded with a digital clock counting down the days.
But will he go?
Speculation is mounting that Obama will ask Gates to remain at the Pentagon -- at least temporarily -- to provide some "continuity" while US military forces remain bogged down in two wars. Although Gates has never rejected the idea outright, he did say at first he thought the prospect was "inconceivable." Since then, however, Pentagon sources tell NBC News that he's said privately that "if asked," he'd consider it his "patriotic duty" to say yes. But under what conditions?
Sources familiar with the game plan for the transition say the Obama Administration would want Gates, who has earned widespread respect and praise from both sides of the aisle, to stay on the job for nine months. Obama would name a Democrat as deputy secretary of Defense, who would be charged with assembling a largely Democratic staff of political appointees for critical positions as Undersecretaries and department heads. After nine months, that same deputy secretary would then slip into the top job as Gates makes a graceful exit. Having served under seven Presidents, Gates fully understands the political realities and the need for Obama to assemble his own team, but may ask to retain a small number of his current staffers for his own continuity.
Sounds good on paper, right? Maybe not.
A Defense official says Gates would not want to be seen as simply a "transitional" or "holdover" secretary of Defense. The official says if the Obama Administration imposed a specific timetable for a departure, Gates could immediately be labeled a "lame duck" secretary, whose authority could be easily dismissed or even undermined by the new team of Democratic appointees. If anyone could pull it off, it would be Gates. But to make sure, Gates would likely ask that the timetable for any extended term in the Pentagon be loosely defined as "under four years" -- giving both Obama and Gates the necessary wiggle room for a gradual but smooth and orderly transition. And that has always been Gates' ultimate objective, whether he leaves or stays.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says Gates well remembers the rocky transition between the Ford and Carter Administrations, which setback critical talks on nuclear weapons with the Soviets for a year. "And that was during a COLD WAR," said Morrell, not two active ground wars the Obama Administration is about to inherit.
Of course, it's still not certain that President-elect Obama will ask Gates to stay. Obama's Pentagon transition team is expected to get to work later this week. With 10 weeks to go, the clock is ticking.