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Holder noncommittal on staying as Obama's attorney general

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder during a meeting at the White House in Washington, July 26, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder during a meeting at the White House in Washington, July 26, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

By David Ingram

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday that he has yet to determine whether he will stay on as the chief U.S. law enforcement officer for President Barack Obama's second term.

Speaking to law students at the University of Baltimore, Holder said he still must speak with both Obama and his own family while considering what he would contribute if he stayed.

"That's something that I'm in the process now of trying to determine," he said.

Holder, 61, said the process included asking himself, "Do I think that there are things that I still want to do? Do I have some gas left in the tank?"

A White House spokesman had no comment on Holder's future.

Several Cabinet members, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, are weighing whether leaving before Obama's second term begins in January is the right time. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she intends to move on.

Holder served in the U.S. Justice Department's No. 2 position under President Bill Clinton, and Obama appointed him attorney general in 2009. Both presidents are Democrats.

It is rare for an attorney general to serve more than four years, and Republicans tried to oust Holder after a botched department operation called "Fast and Furious" that targeted gun trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives dismissed a congressional inquiry into Fast and Furious as politically motivated, and the Justice Department's inspector general cleared Holder of any wrongdoing.

Holder has not previously committed one way or the other to serving in a second Obama term.

He worked on Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, and the two prominent black lawyers have similar backgrounds, including immigrant fathers and degrees from Columbia University.

There could be symbolic reasons for Holder, the first black U.S. attorney general, to stay on at least into 2013.

June will mark the 50th anniversary of the racial desegregation of the University of Alabama, where Vivian Malone - whose sister is Holder's wife - was one of the first black students.

DRUG POLICY AN ISSUE

Holder's latest comments came in response to questions from Ron Weich, dean of the University of Baltimore's law school and a former Justice Department official under Holder.

Weich asked whether Holder had thought about a second term, what his plan is and whether he might serve through 2016, a tenure that would match that of Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno.

"I don't know why you assume my service would have to stop at 2016," Holder quipped initially, appearing at ease on stage with his former colleague.

"President Jeb Bush, President Marco Rubio, President Hillary Clinton - any one of them might ask me to stay on," he said, referring to rumored 2016 presidential candidates from both parties.

Speaking two days after voters in two states legalized marijuana for recreational use, Holder said there should be a broad discussion about U.S. drug policy.

"How much money have we spent? What are the results that we've gotten?" he said, adding that the government might need to make drug treatment a higher priority.

Asked by Weich to explain how one becomes attorney general, Holder dead-panned: "Be friends with the president."

Holder told the law students he was most proud of his having rejuvenated the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the unit charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws in voting, housing, education and other areas.

Democrats and civil rights organizations said this division had wandered from its core mission during Republican George W. Bush's administration.

"You can really assess how good the Justice Department is by how effective its Civil Rights Division is," Holder said.

Obama's re-election on Tuesday, defeating Republican challenger Mitt Romney, confirmed the strength of the administration's priorities, Holder said.

"The fact that he won, and as conclusively as he did, is in many ways a vindication of the policies that he talked about," he said.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller and Philip Barbara)

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