WASHINGTON — It’s a long way from playing volleyball at Beverly Hills High School to being the most powerful woman in Washington, but Michele Flournoy could cap such a remarkable journey if President Barack Obama selects her as defense secretary.
Flournoy, little known outside the world of military policy, is on the shortlist to lead the Pentagon in Obama’s second term. She would be the first woman in that role.
An inveterate policy wonk who first worked in the Pentagon under President Bill Clinton and later co-founded a respected think tank, Flournoy, 52, has spent two decades climbing to the top of Washington’s notoriously male-dominated national security establishment, winning the admiration of military officers and politicians from both parties even as she remained out of the spotlight.
Although a child of Hollywood — her father was a TV cinematographer, her mother a onetime theater actress — she long ago abandoned Los Angeles for the distinctly unglamorous world of defense policy. She never served in uniform but has been at the center of her generation’s most important debates over the future of the U.S. military, from arms control in the Reagan years to the counterinsurgency strategies employed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When Obama took office in 2009, Flournoy returned to the Pentagon in the department’s No. 3 position — undersecretary of defense for policy — but resigned last February, saying she wanted to spend more time with her three children.
Now, chances have increased that she might return, this time in the top spot. Weeks ago, White House officials began floating the name of former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican, as Obama’s likely pick. But that possibility has encountered fierce opposition, largely from other Republicans, because of Hagel’s past criticism of Israel and early opposition to some sanctions against Iran.
As Hagel’s chances appear to have declined, Flournoy and Ashton Carter, the deputy defense secretary, have emerged as alternatives who would likely breeze through the Senate confirmation process, although officials caution that all three remain in contention and Obama has given little indication of which way he leans.
“She’s really a policy wonk, probably more so than any Democratic secretary of defense since William Perry,” who served under Clinton, said James Mann, who wrote a book on Obama’s foreign policy advisers called “The Obamians” and is author in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “She’d be a terrific appointment. She’s incredibly competent, smart and really loved by everyone who works for her.”
The next defense secretary will take over at a crucial time, with budget cuts and the waning war in Afghanistan fueling questions about the future of the armed forces. Flournoy, a Democrat who served as a surrogate for Obama during his re-election campaign, is seen not as an ideologue but as a pragmatist who understands how the military must adapt to new threats.
Janine Davidson, who worked for her at the Pentagon from 2009 to 2012 as deputy assistant secretary in charge of plans, said Flournoy was constantly seeking ways to boost “preventive security.” One of her initiatives was a deeper military cooperation with Australia, part of a stepped-up U.S. focus on Asia intended to counter China’s increasing assertiveness.
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, who first met Flournoy in 1994 when she was a low-level Pentagon appointee writing an analysis of the failed U.S. engagement in Somalia, said her worldview “is not ideologically based and it is not politically based.”
“I think she has a traditional way of thinking about America’s role in the world, more Jeffersonian than Teddy Roosevelt — that the shining light of America ought to mean something in the world, be an example and model, but it shouldn’t be a heavy hand to force people to follow our model,” Newbold said.
More unusual, in a capital of cutthroat rivalries and outsized egos, the soft-spoken Flournoy is widely liked. She learns the names of interns, visits old colleagues when she travels to military bases and, while at the Pentagon, introduced flexible work schedules to allow employees — including a number of women she helped recruit — more time with their families.
About the most critical thing anyone will say about Flournoy is that she has a serious Starbucks addiction. Conservatives, who have focused their opposition on Hagel, have even praised her as highly qualified.
Her thoughtful, understated manner masks an iron will.
“Michele has this charisma about her,” Davidson said. “When she is in the room at the head of a table with all these generals and admirals … and she speaks — boom, everyone turns and listens. She has sort of a regal sense about her. She doesn’t have to scream or yell.”
Flournoy’s childhood did not suggest her future career. Her father, a World War II veteran, died when she was 14. In her 1979 senior yearbook at Beverly Hills High, she appears only once, in her class picture. But she was an avid volleyball player, serving as co-captain of the junior varsity team as a sophomore. Teammate Keri Frankenstein recalled her as “always thoughtful and contemplative” and “very intelligent.”
A summer in Belgium as a high school exchange student helped spark her interest in global affairs. She graduated from Harvard University and studied international relations at the University of Oxford. In 1990, she married W. Scott Gould, a Navy veteran who holds the No. 2 job at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
After working at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, Flournoy spent the early George W. Bush years at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a mainstream Washington think tank. According to “The Obamians,” Flournoy wanted to take a more overtly political role: to develop centrist policies to help Democrats combat the perception their party was weak on national security.
Six years ago, she and another Pentagon alumnus founded the Center for a New American Security, which has grown into an influential player largely by promoting the doctrine of counterinsurgency, which calls for troops to develop close ties with local populations to help defeat militants.
The center is a haven for hawkish Democrats; during the 2008 presidential campaign, while Obama proposed removing all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months, Flournoy and others called for a more gradual drawdown. The center accepts contributions from defense contractors, which has led critics to label it too close to the military establishment.
Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine captain who was recently the center’s chief executive, said it had built a reputation for “trying to impact the national conversation” rather than developing “arcane policy.”
After his first election, Obama tapped Flournoy to help lead his Pentagon transition team, and in 2010 she led the department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, a congressionally mandated assessment of U.S. military strategy. She was an early backer of the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan and advocated putting more resources into training Afghan forces.
At the Pentagon, she was immersed in her job, working 80-hour weeks and forgoing her regular workouts. After leaving the office about 7 p.m. to have dinner with her kids, she’d work from her home in Bethesda, Md., until midnight, friends said.
Flournoy told NPR recently she has “had a chance to recharge my batteries, and I am eager for public service in the future,” but she added that “it would be very hard to miss these very precious years … the last years with my teenagers at home.”
A spokesperson said Flournoy was traveling this week and unavailable for comment.
Now working in a variety of private-sector jobs, including as an adviser to Boston Consulting Group, Flournoy, according to friends, sleeps two to three hours more a night, works out more often and eats breakfast with her family every day.
John Nagl, a former president of her think tank, saw her at a holiday party and said she looked rested — but he wasn’t sure she’s ready to return to the grind of government work.
Still, Nagl said, “If the president needs her, she’ll be ready.”