The 65-year-old former spymaster has turned publicly mum on the circumstances under which he would stay, even briefly, after President-elect Barack Obama takes office. But one of the leading scenarios for a wartime transition at the Pentagon has Gates holding the fort, at least for some months.
If Gates does stay on, the announcement could come soon.
A national security spokeswoman for Obama, Brooke Anderson, said Thursday she had no comment on Gates or on whether the president-elect has held discussions with any candidate for the Pentagon job.
By keeping mum, both camps may preserve the option of walking away without hard feelings.
The apparent logic in keeping Gates for an extended transition — but perhaps not for a full presidential term — is that it would allow time for a secretary-in-waiting, who might come aboard in January as Gates' deputy, to assemble a new team of senior defense policy officials before the top boss departs.
It also would reflect a widely held view among Republicans as well as Democrats that Gates has the experience, demeanor and policy priorities to manage U.S. defense under a president of either political party. On the other hand, he has said he supported President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, whereas a central theme of Obama's campaign was that he opposed it from the start.
One of the strongest indications of Obama's interest in possibly keeping Gates came in early October when Richard Danzig, a senior national security adviser to the Obama campaign and himself a possible selection to succeed Gates, told reporters that Gates has proved himself an effective Pentagon chief.
"He'd be an even better one in an Obama administration," Danzig said. "Why do I think that? Because many of the kinds of efforts he's made are in tune with what we are trying to do." He mentioned, as examples, Gates' efforts to get more U.S. combat forces to Afghanistan and to expand the size of the Afghan army.
Picking Gates, even with a tacit understanding that a Democrat such as Danzig would take over after a period of months, could be hard to swallow for liberals and strong critics of the Iraq war. Those groups nursed Obama's candidacy through an improbable infancy, motivated by his firm anti-war stance.
"I'm rooting for Gates. I think it's a great move politically," Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said in a recent interview. He said he thinks Gates is a good fit in part because of his calm, measured response to rising tensions with Russia, saying one Cold War was enough.
The Defense Department is one of the largest and most complex organizations in the U.S. government, and with two wars under way there is extra concern about security vulnerabilities during the transition. This is the first wartime presidential transition since 1968, when the Vietnam war was under way.
Should he go gracefully now, Gates would enter retirement on a high note, having carried off his assigned role as a soothing influence after the turbulence of the Rumsfeld years, with a significant — and largely unpredicted — turnaround in Iraq under his belt.
Until speculation about his future intensified in the weeks before Obama's victory, Gates routinely responded to questions about his interest in staying at the Pentagon by saying he and his wife, Becky, would return to their lakeside home in Washington state as soon as President Bush finished his term. Gates carries a small digital counter — a kind of gag gift from a friend, labeled "The Gates Countdown" — that shows the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Jan. 20 and the end of his commitment to Bush.
On April 23, when asked if he thought he would be asked to stay, Gates replied, "The circumstances under which I would do that are inconceivable to me."
By October he seemed a little less firm. "Let me just say that I'm getting a lot more career advice and counseling than I might have anticipated. I think I'll leave it at that. I'm still planning on heading to Washington state."
And in his most recent remark on the subject, last week, he said, "I have nothing new to say on that subject."
The 45-minute session covered a wide range of topics, Gates spokesman Geoff Morrell said. He would not be specific about what the Obama team wanted to know.
So, did the possibility of Gates staying come up?
"Not to my knowledge," Morrell said.