WASHINGTON - Chuck Hagel was sworn in Wednesday as defense secretary - President Barack Obama's third in just over four years and the first who really wanted one of Washington's toughest jobs.
Introducing himself to Pentagon workers shortly after taking the oath of office, Hagel said he was humbled by the opportunity and ready for the challenge. He survived a contentious confirmation process in which some Republican senators questioned his suitability for the job and suggested he lacked the character to lead the military.
"I'll be honest, I'll be direct, I'll expect the same from you," he told a standing-room-only audience of several hundred civilian Defense Department workers and members of the military. "I'll never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn't do."
He called the automatic budget cuts due to take effect on Friday - to include $46 billion in Pentagon reductions - "a reality" that "we need to deal with."
He'll also have to deal with the complexities of winding down the war in Afghanistan. U.S. combat troops are to fully withdraw by the end of next year, but Obama has yet to announce how many troops may stay to continue training and advising the Afghan army and targeting al-Qaida and affiliated extremist groups.
Hagel made no explicit mention of Afghanistan, but in a written statement to Pentagon employees he mentioned that 34,000 U.S. troops will come home over the coming year.
"As we turn the page on more than a decade of grinding conflict, we must broaden our attention to future threats and challenges," he said, citing cyber warfare as an example. He also emphasized the importance he places on alliances like NATO.
Hagel succeeds Leon Panetta, who had hoped to retire from public service after serving as Obama's first CIA director but was talked into taking over last July for Robert Gates, a holdover from President George W. Bush's Pentagon. Gates made a point of carrying a "countdown clock" tracking the time until he could retire.
Panetta had already retreated to his home in California last weekend to follow the outcome of Senate votes Tuesday that granted Panetta his wish not to have to return to Washington. He had packed his bags, boxed up his office and said his final farewells days earlier.
Hagel was confirmed on a Senate vote of 58-41, with four Republicans joining the Democrats in backing him. Hagel's only GOP support came from former colleagues Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Dick Shelby of Alabama and Mike Johanns of Nebraska - all three had announced their support earlier - and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
The vote came just hours after Republicans dropped their unprecedented delay of a Pentagon choice and allowed the nomination to move forward on a 71-27 vote.