Panetta, introduced as Obama's choice Friday, served as White House chief of staff for former President Bill Clinton for nearly three years, and well as director of the Office of Management and Budget, where he was credited with developing the budget package that would eventually result in the 1998 balanced budget, Wikipedia.com said.
Panetta was born in Monterey, Calif., the son of Italian immigrants who were restaurant owners. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in political science from Santa Clara University. He earned his law degree from the Santa Clara University Law School.
Panetta entered the political arena in 1966 as a legislative assistant to Republican U.S. Sen. Thomas Kuchel of California, the Minority Whip, whom Panetta has called "a tremendous role model," the online encyclopedia said.
In 1969 he became assistant to Robert H. Finch, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare secretary during the Nixon administration and later was appointed Office for Civil Rights director.
Panetta chose to enforce civil rights and equal education laws, even though he was under political pressure not to from then-president Nixon, Wikipedia said. In early 1970, Panetta resigned and left Washington to work for John Lindsay, the Republican New York mayor.
Panetta switched to the Democratic Party in 1971, saying he thought the Republican Party was moving away from the political center.
In 1976, Panetta was elected to the U.S. Congress from California, and re-elected for nine terms. As a congressman, his work concentrated on budget issues, civil rights, education, health and environmental issues.
Panetta and his wife founded the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy in December 1998, located at California State University-Monterey Bay.