The announcement Friday that Janet Napolitano was stepping down as Homeland Security Secretary took much of official Washington by surprise. While the president has known "for several weeks," according to a senior administration official, most insiders had thought Napolitano was waiting for Attorney General Eric Holder to resign early in Obama’s second term so that she could move into the top slot at Justice.
For years Napolitano’s closest aides had made no secret of the fact that she coveted his job. Indeed, she wore her ambitions so openly that it added an element of personal rivalry to an already fractious relationship between agencies known to clash over their overlapping missions.
In many ways Napolitano has the perfect resume to lead the Justice Department. As a former attorney general and U.S. attorney in Arizona, she has a stellar background in law enforcement. Moreover, President Obama was so impressed with Napolitano’s legal chops that he seriously considered her for the Supreme Court seat that ultimately went to Sonya Sotomayor. Finally, having led the sprawling Department of Homeland Security for five years with few major mishaps or controversies, the White House has come to view her as a highly effective manager.
But in cabinet-level musical chairs, timing is often destiny. Holder, with the president’s blessing, has decided to stay on—possibly into the early part of 2014 or even beyond. As time went on, the job had diminishing appeal for Napolitano, a former adviser told The Daily Beast. “This was not something she was pining for,” he says.
Becoming attorney general in the second half of a president’s second term is usually more of a burden than an opportunity. AGs become targets of election-year warfare and they have little ability to shape a policy agenda. Sources close to Napolitano say that she began to recognize this reality after the election and started to ponder opportunities beyond Washington. When a search committee for the University of California system came around looking for a new president, Napolitano leapt at the chance. “This is not a temporary commitment,” says the former adviser to Napolitano. “This is signal that her time in Washington has come to the end.”
The decision came so quickly that the White House has yet to assemble a short list of serious candidates to take Napolitano’s place. Indeed, one reason Obama had been reluctant to move Napolitano over to Justice, even if Holder had resigned, was because he was worried about being able to find someone with the background and skill set to ride herd over the massive, unruly agency. Now Obama doesn’t have a choice.
Among the names already being floated are politicians like Joe Lieberman, the former independent senator from Connecticut who chaired the Homeland Security Committee, and respected law enforcement officials like New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Kelly was vetted as a possible FBI director in 2011 when Robert Mueller's 10-year term came to a close. Obama ended up asking Congress to extend Mueller's term for two more years. Kelly, according to an administration official, was not considered for the FBI post when Mueller stepped down earlier this year.
Both have a deep knowledge of counterterrorism, which Obama considers to be a requisite for the job. John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration and a former deputy FBI director is also in the running. Others who may be in the mix include Craig Fugate, the current chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a favorite of Obama’s for his very competent response to disasters, from Hurricane Sandy to the recent tornadoes that devastated Oklahoma. Another possible contender is Thad Allen, the former Commandant of the Coast Guard, who earned high marks for his coordination of the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
A dark horse candidate, administration officials say, is Richard Danzig, a former secretary of the Navy under President Clinton who maintains close ties to the Obama administration. Danzig was under serious consideration to be secretary of Defense after Obama was elected but was edged out by Robert Gates. Danzig was offered multiple other high-level positions, but opted to stay out of government. He is a member of President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board and advises the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department on terrorism and bio-defense matters.