While there is much speculation about cabinet secretary changes in President Obama’s second administration, it appears that Secretary Panetta will, as least for now, remain in his job.  Panetta talked with reporters about his future and the challenges he is facing on his way to meet with Australian and other Asia-Pacific defense leaders.

Asked if he intends to stay in his job as defense secretary for President Obama’s entire second term, Panetta responded “it’s no secret that, at some point, I’d like to get back to California [his home].”  But, he explained, “right now my goal is to basically meet my responsibilities in terms of dealing with those issues and that’s the most important focus I have right now.”

Panetta listed those issues and challenges as sequestration, the DoD budget, and planning related to Afghanistan.

On sequestration, Panetta said there is an opportunity, now that the election has been decided, for the two parties to come together to reach a compromise.  He pointed to what he described as “hopeful talk” in Washington since the election about finding a solution to avert sequestration.

Panetta recognized that the time constraints of the lame duck Congress place real challenges on members and Senators.  But, he cautioned, failure to act decisively [on sequestration] would put a “cloud” over DoD.   “The worst thing that could happen is for them [Congress] simply to kick the can down the road and just delay the whole process without addressing the fundamental issues that need to be addressed,” he warned.

Talking about the budget deficit, he again stressed that, based on his experience, a “fair and effective” solution on budget deficits must consider all areas of the budget; mandatory as well as discretionary spending.  He pointed out that defense has “already made a significant contribution to deficit reduction” by responsibly taking $500 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years.

The secretary also said he is working with the White House on several options presented by General John R. Allen, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), for post-2014 troop levels in Afghanistan.  He said the options are based on how best to accomplish the missions (counterterrorism, training, and advising and assisting the Afghan army) necessary “to have an effective enduring presence” in Afghanistan after 2014.  Panetta said he hoped to finish the review process on these options within the next few weeks.