Austin arrived at the Pentagon just after noon on Friday and was sworn in. An official swearing-in ceremony will take place at the White House next week.
The new Secretary of Defense’s first day is tightly planned, beginning with meetings with Deputy Secretary David Norquist – one of the few remnants of the last administration to serve as acting secretary while Austin awaited confirmation – and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley.
Austin will also host a coronavirus briefing with Pentagon leaders and speak with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
“It is an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense, and I am particularly proud to be the first African American to hold this position.” Austin wrote on Twitter after confirmation. “Let’s go to work.”
The confirmation vote came just a day after the House and Senate approved a waiver of service in Austin. Austin, who retired from the military in 2016, does not meet the legal requirement that military officers not wear uniforms for seven years to serve as secretaries of defense.
Austin, a former commander of the United States Forces in the Middle East, is the second four-star general to be waived in four years. Congress also passed an exemption for former President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief, retired Navy General Jim Mattis.
Despite the groundbreaking nature of Austin’s nomination and years of experience, lawmakers on both parties were concerned that the installation of another general at the Pentagon would upset civil-military relations. Even some supporters of Trump and Mattis, like Republican Senator Tom Cotton or Arkansas, argued that supporting Mattis in 2017 was a mistake and that Congress should never again grant the waiver.
While 27 Senators had voted against the waiver the day before, only two Senators were against Austin’s approval: Republicans Josh Hawley from Missouri and Mike Lee from Utah.
Austin doubled civilian control of the military at a Senate Armed Forces affirmation hearing on Tuesday. Most senators were satisfied with Austin’s pledges to strengthen civilian control of the military and empower high-ranking civilians in the Pentagon, rather than surrounding themselves with ex-military personnel.
“Mr. Austin has had a successful career in the Army, but these days are behind him,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, ahead of Friday’s vote.
“He has to demonstrate to the world again that the US military will always support friends, deter our opponents and, if necessary, defeat them,” said Schumer. “Lloyd Austin is the right person for the job.”
Outgoing Republican Senate Armed Forces Committee chairman Jim Inhofe argued that Austin was the right choice to lead the Pentagon because the military is focused on the same gains for China and Russia.
“We are in the most threatened times that we have been,” said Inhofe. “And I can’t think of a better person to take the helm than General Austin to take this lead.”
Despite Austin’s support, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cautioned Senators to “stop and ponder” that Congress exempted two retired generals from federal law to run the Pentagon at the beginning of successive administrations.
“We will examine the steps Congress can take to rebalance the Pentagon,” McConnell said. “The law, which we repeatedly renounce, exists for good reason. Civilian control of the military is a fundamental principle of our republic.”
In his first few days at work, Austin will likely oversee the dismantling of Trump’s restrictive transgender troop policies. Biden has pledged to reverse Trump’s ban and return to Obama-era policies that allow transgender people to serve openly. Austin testified to senators that he supported lifting the ban.
He also pledged to quickly review the Pentagon’s efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic to ensure the department is doing everything in its power to support vaccine distribution and the inoculation of troops.
He will also take over a Pentagon that is grappling with issues of systemic racism and extremism in the ranks after months of racist unrest in the country and a deadly riot this month in the U.S. Capitol that included some ex-military personnel.
“The Department of Defense’s job is to protect America from our enemies,” Austin testified on Tuesday. “But we can’t do that when some of these enemies are in our own ranks.”
It is the historical nature of the choice that also underscores one of the greatest challenges Austin faces: making the military more diverse, especially in the higher echelons.
“If African Americans are to be successful, we have to work harder, stay longer, and get in earlier. We always have,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, a former Army officer. “We have to clear this bar, with a lot more space than other people. Austin is clearing this bar.”
“The moment he walks through the door will power the department,” he added.
But making the military more representative won’t be that easy, warned the retired adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and chief of naval operations.
“He has to get this done and hold the feet of the services by the fire on this matter because it’s a priority for the country.” And now it’s time, ”he said in an interview.
Achieving more equality for the military goes way beyond promoting more black officers, he said.
“My biggest regret when I was CNO and Chairman is that I couldn’t do much with Latinx,” said Mullen. “I pushed women and minorities and the Latinx piece of it, you know, there was no place to push. I didn’t have a pool and that has to be created.”
Austin is the first Pentagon candidate to be confirmed in this administration.
Biden has also nominated Kathleen Hicks to stand in for Austin and Colin Kahl as head of Pentagon politics, but has not yet received a confirmation hearing.
Lara Seligman and Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.