Austin retired in 2016 after serving as the first Black general to head U.S. Central Command.
Lloyd J. Austin, a West Point graduate who rose to the Army’s elite ranks and marched through racial barriers in a 41-year career, won Senate confirmation on Friday to become the nation’s first Black secretary of defense.
The 93-2 vote gave President Joe Biden his second Cabinet member; Avril Haines was confirmed on Wednesday as the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. Biden is expected to win approval for others on his national security team in coming days, including Antony Blinken as secretary of state.
Mr. Biden is looking for Mr. Austin to restore stability atop the Pentagon, which went through two Senate-confirmed secretaries of defense and four who held the post on an interim basis during the Trump administration. The only senators who voted against Mr. Austin were Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Josh Hawley of Missouri.
Before heading to the Pentagon, Mr. Austin wrote on Twitter that he is especially proud to be the first Black secretary of defense. “Let’s get to work,” he wrote.
And a short time later he arrived at the Pentagon’s River Entrance, where he was greeted by holdover Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, who has been the acting secretary since Wednesday, and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He didn’t stop to answer reporters’ questions but said he looks forward to dealing with the press.
The Pentagon said that after being sworn in and getting an intelligence briefing, Austin would hold a meeting on COVID-19 with senior civilian and military officials. He also planned to speak by phone with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and to receive briefings about China and the Middle East.
Mr. Austin’s confirmation was complicated by his status as a recently retired general. He required a waiver of a legal prohibition on a military officer serving as secretary of defense within seven years of retirement. Austin retired in 2016 after serving as the first Black general to head U.S. Central Command. He was the first Black vice chief of staff of the Army in 2012 and also served as director of the Joint Staff, a behind-the-scenes job that gave him an intimate view of the Pentagon’s inner workings.
The House and the Senate approved the waiver on Thursday, clearing the way for the Senate confirmation vote.
At his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Mr. Austin said he had not sought the nomination but was ready to lead the Pentagon without clinging to his military status and with full awareness that being a political appointee and Cabinet member requires “a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform.”
As vice president, Mr. Biden worked closely with Mr. Austin in 2010-11 to wind down U.S. military involvement in Iraq while Mr. Austin was the top U.S. commander in Baghdad. American forces withdrew entirely, only to return in 2014 after the Islamic State extremist group captured large swaths of Iraqi territory. At Central Command, Austin was a key architect of the strategy to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria.