(Photo: Ann Heisenfelt, AP)
David Jackson, USA TODAY
President Obama combined a tribute to outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday with criticism of possible automatic budget cuts at the Pentagon next month.
"There is no reason -- no reason -- for that to happen," Obama said at a retirement ceremony for Panetta.
The "sequester" -- automatic budget cuts that hit both domestic and defense programs -- takes effect March 1 unless the White House and Congress agree on a debt reduction plan.
Obama wants to reduce the debt with both budget cuts and tax revenues by closing loopholes; some Republicans said the emphasis should be on spending cuts, not higher taxes.
In calling on Congress to avert the sequester, Obama said lawmakers need to summon the spirit of public service exhibited by Panetta, "solving problems, not trying to score points."
In praising Panetta for his work as defense secretary, and before that as CIA director, Obama cited the end of combat operations in Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan.
At the CIA, Panetta also helped coordinate "perhaps the greatest intelligence success in American history," Obama said, the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants, is a former member of Congress, and also served as budget director and White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.
"The grand arc of your life speaks to our larger American story," Obama said.
In his remarks, Panetta also cited Iraq, Afghanistan, the bin Laden raid, and the ongoing battle against al Qaeda terrorists.
"We have shown the world that nobody attacks the United States of America and gets away with it," Panetta said.
One topic that went unmentioned: An apparent disagreement over arming Syrian rebels.
At a Senate hearing on Thursday, Panetta said he had supported a Pentagon plan to send weapons to Syria rebels, a plan rebuffed by the White House.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to discuss "internal deliberations," but said Obama and his national security team "don't want any weapons to fall into the wrong hands and potentially further endanger the Syrian people, our ally, Israel, or the United States."