President Obama paid an affectionate tribute to retiring Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, whom he convinced to come out of retirement to serve as his CIA director and then Defense Secretary -- calling the son of Italian immigrants "a man who hasn't simply lived up to the American dream, but has helped to protect it for all of us."
Obama noted that Panetta had already put in decades of public service and was "settled into the good life" in California with his wife, when Obama took office.
"Leon will deny it, but I hear he was growing restless," Obama said to laughter. "He wanted less time on the tractor and enjoying good weather and more time in the office, less time in California, more time in Washington, interacting with the West Wing and members of Congress. Who wouldn't?"
Obama also took the opportunity to prod Congress to come up with a fix to avoid looming spending cuts, arguing they'd have a "severe impact" on the military.
Obama said under Panetta the U.S. "ended the war in Iraq and are winding down the war in Afghanistan" and that "we've put the core of Al Qaida on the path to defeat, and we've been relentless against its affiliates."
And he noted that Panetta would be remembered for "historic progress in welcoming more of our fellow citizens to military service," noting that "don't ask/don't tell," was repealed and combat roles were opened to women."
Obama also used the event to press Congress to reach a deal to avoid looming spending cuts, saying "putting our fiscal house in order calls for a balanced approach, not massive, indiscriminate cuts that could have a severe impact on our military preparedness.""Here today, for the sake of our prosperity, for the sake of all these men and women in uniform, and all their brothers and sisters in uniform that they represent, now's the time to act, for Democrats and Republicans to come together in the same spirit that Leon Panetta always brought to public service," Obama said. "Solving problems, not trying to score points, doing right for the country, not for any particular political agenda, sustaining our economic recovery, balancing budgets -- but also maintaining the finest military in history"
He hailed Panetta for his sense of humor, saying "they say that you've never seen our wounded warriors smile as wide or heard them laugh as loud as when they get a visit from their secretary of defense"
And he added that "whatever the challenge, Leon, you always give it to us straight, sometimes in words that can't be repeated here in public."He closed with a hug: "So, Leon, as your parents would say, grazie. God bless you, and God bless these United States of America."