The Iraq war was the central issue of Rumsfeld's nearly six-year tenure, and unhappiness with the war was a major element of voter dissatisfaction Tuesday — and the main impetus for his departure. Even some GOP lawmakers became critical of the war's management, and growing numbers of politicians were urging President Bush to replace Rumsfeld.
Mr. Bush said, 63, who has served in a variety of national security jobs under six previous presidents, would be nominated to replace Rumsfeld. Gates, currently the president of Texas A&M University, is a Bush family friend and a member of an independent group studying the way ahead in Iraq.
The White House hopes that replacing Rumsfeld with Gates can help refresh U.S. policy on the deeply unpopular war and perhaps establish a stronger rapport with the new Congress. Rumsfeld had a rocky relationship with many lawmakers.
"Secretary Rumsfeld and I agreed that sometimes it's necessary to have a fresh perspective," Mr. Bush said in the abrupt announcement during a post-election news conference.
Gates is currently a member of the Iraq study group, which is charged with charting a new course in Iraq, CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports.
"Because our long-term strategic interests and our national and homeland security are at risk, I did not hesitate when the president asked me to return to duty," Gates said.
In a later appearance at the White House with Rumsfeld and Gates at his side, President Bush praised both men, thanked Rumsfeld for his service and predicted that Gates would bring fresh ideas.
"The secretary of defense must be a man of vision who can see threats still over the horizon and prepare our nation to meet them. Bob Gates is the right man to meet both of these critical challenges," the president said.
In brief remarks, Rumsfeld described the Iraq conflict as a "little understood, unfamiliar war" that is "complex for people to comprehend." Upon his return to the Pentagon after appearing with Mr. Bush and Gates, Rumsfeld said it was a good time for him to leave.
"It will be a different Congress, a different environment, moving toward a presidential election and a lot of partisanship, and it struck me that this would be a good thing for everybody," Rumsfeld told reporters.
But underscoring that he would not bow to those pushing for a quick U.S. withdrawal, he also said, "I'd like our troops to come home, too, but I want them to come home with victory."
There was little outward reaction among officials at the Pentagon, beyond surprise at the abrupt announcement.
Asked whether Rumsfeld's departure signaled a new direction in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 2,800 U.S. troops and cost more than $300 billion, Mr. Bush said, "Well, there's certainly going to be new leadership at the Pentagon."
Despite saying that he wanted to work with Democrats on Iraq, at times Mr. Bush seemed as dug in as ever about compromising on his wartime policies, Axelrod reports.
"See, if the goal is success, then we can work together," Mr. Bush said. "If the goal is to get out now regardless, then that's going to be hard to work together."
Voters appeared to be telling politicians that the sooner the war ends the better. Surveys at polling places showed that about six in 10 voters disapproved of the war and only a third believed it had improved long-term security in the United States.