President Obama is expected to tap the veteran Pentagon official to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was eased out by a White House unhappy with his low-key style. Carter was the second-in-command at the Pentagon from 2011 to 2013 before he returned to academia and foundation work.
• CLAIMS TO FAME
Carter knows his way around the Pentagon. As an Assistant Defense Secretary under Bill Clinton, he oversaw international security and nuclear weapons. In the Obama Administration, Carter was the nation’s top weapons buyer and then ran the Defense Department’s daily operations as Deputy Secretary. His academic pedigree is sterling, with degrees in physics and medieval history from Yale and a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford.
• CURRENT CHALLENGES
At his confirmation hearing, the Senate will want to hear Carter’s plans for defeating ISIS, including how much deeper the U.S. should get involved. He will also have to grapple with the continuing U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan while managing inevitable budget cuts.
• BIGGEST CHAMPION
Leon Panetta, Carter’s former boss at the Pentagon, has praised him as a “rare leader who understood both the policy and budget sides of the agency.” As Panetta’s deputy, Carter quietly visited wounded warriors on the weekends.
• BIGGEST CRITIC
Doves worried about his well-publicized 2006 threat to attack North Korea’s nuclear-capable missiles–and wonder what that could mean for his handling of possible showdowns with other rogue actors.
• CAN HE DO IT?
Carter is well suited for the task of managing the Defense Department’s operations. The bigger challenge–charting a course to defeat ISIS and prevail in Afghanistan–would test any Pentagon boss.
This appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of TIME.