Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this month at the Pentagon. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this month at the Pentagon. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

It’s been more than a year since Chuck Hagel’s bruising Senate confirmation hearing to become secretary of defense, but the pain is still palpable, even as Hagel tries to craft a defense budget that will pass muster with a skeptical Congress.

“I got hit by everything I would get hit by that first day,” Hagel said Tuesday morning, recalling the confirmation hearing in which he sparred with Sen. John McCain and others. “That’s not an excuse,” he said, likening his challenge to that facing Tom Osborne, the celebrated football coach at the University of Nebraska in Hagel’s home state. Osborne has one of the highest winning percentages of any college coach.

“I see my job as a Tom Osborne football team,” Hagel explained. “You don’t win games unless you play all four quarters.” He conceded that he had gotten roughed up in his “first quarter” in the confirmation hearing, which was widely seen as disastrous, and during the long aftermath.

“I know what I’m doing,” Hagel insisted. “I know how to do this. . . . Now we’re going into the second quarter.” He said he hoped to serve all four years of President Obama’s second administration.

Hagel was meeting with columnists and defense analysts to explain his budget proposal, released Monday, which will cut the numbers of troops, planes and ships to address budget pressures. Some defense commentators praised his attempt to protect the Pentagon’s technological edge and combat readiness, even at a cost of the hardware beloved by members of congress.

Hagel struggled Tuesday with questions that pushed for a broader framework in which to assess the budget choices he made. Asked what “grand strategy” lay behind the budget numbers, Hagel answered: “Defend the country.” Pressed later about what legacy he hoped to leave as defense secretary, Hagel again demurred, saying: “I’ll leave that to the smart people.”

This low-key, plain-vanilla manner has been part of Hagel’s style ever since he joined the Senate in 1997. He’s proud that he served as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, as opposed to an officer, arguing that this gives him a sense of what the military looks like for the men and women in the ranks.

But Hagel follows three intellectual powerhouses — Donald Rumsfeld, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta — who, for better and sometimes for worse, immersed themselves in the details of Pentagon policy.

Hagel is trying hard to master one of the toughest management jobs in Washington, and he deserves good marks for his first budget. But you could see Tuesday that Hagel is still recovering from the effects of a confirmation hearing that turned into the Washington equivalent of a cage fight.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.