Mabus, the other top contender, doesn’t enjoy Panetta’s high profile in Washington, but the Navy secretary’s career has also prepared him well for the Pentagon’s changing mission. His first elected position was Mississippi state auditor, a job that he said in an interview with National Journal taught him how to “read balance sheets and follow the money through budgets.” Mississippi was then one of the most corrupt states in the country, and Mabus helped the FBI amass evidence of local officials’ financial improprieties, eventually culminating in the arrests of 57 county supervisors in a series of raids called Operation Pretense. That investigation catapulted Mabus into the governor’s office in 1988, when he was just 39. After that, he was Clinton’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, an early endorser of Obama, and, even as Navy secretary, the head of the administration’s Gulf Coast restoration efforts.
Mabus has also had some crucial on-the-job training in recent years: He scrapped the Marines’ expeditionary fighting vehicle and lowered the price of the Navy’s littoral combat ship program by forcing the two companies bidding for the contract to compete against each other even beyond the normal contracting process. Mabus said that the result will save $2.9 billion over the next five years and allow the service to buy 20 ships, one more than had been planned. “We’re being very careful with how we spend money and how we build ships,” Mabus said in an interview. “You have to make some hard choices.”
White House officials say they haven’t begun interviewing possible successors yet, but senior military and Defense officials expect the formal selection process to get under way within weeks. Panetta and Mabus declined to comment about whether they’ve spoken to the White House about the job. Choosing his words carefully, Mabus told National Journal, “I read the same periodicals you do.”