President Obama today praised outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for strengthening the military and making the nation better prepared to meet future challenges.
"No one has raised their voice as firmly or as forcefully on behalf of our troops as you have," Obama said at a farewell ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. "You've served with integrity and decency and grace. You're a reminder of what public service ought to be.
"You've led with heart, and you've led with humor," he said. "Indeed, they say that you've never seen our wounded warriors smile as wide or heard them laugh as loud as when they get a visit from their secretary of defense. And whatever the challenge, Leon, you always give it to us straight, sometimes in words that can't be repeated here in public."
The president also lauded Panetta for "welcoming more of our fellow citizens to military service," citing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the opening of combat roles to women in uniform.
Panetta was initially set to retire in 2011 when he planned to leave his post as CIA director. Obama then asked him to stay on and run the Defense Department.
"Your leadership of the CIA will forever be remembered for the blows that we struck against al Qaeda and perhaps the greatest intelligence success in American history, delivering justice to Osama bin Laden," he said.
Obama retold how Panetta repeatedly turned down the defense secretary job.
"But I kept asking. I am persistent," he joked. "That's how Michelle married me. I just kept at it."
Today's farewell ceremony may have been a tad premature. Senators have not yet scheduled a vote on the nomination of Chuck Hagel, Obama's pick to replace Panetta.