WASHINGTON — Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, announced Friday that she was stepping down, setting off a search to fill one of the most challenging positions in government at a time when the Obama administration is struggling to get a team in place for the president’s second term.
Napolitano, a former Arizona governor who for 4½ years shaped the administration’s response to hurricanes, terrorist attacks, illegal immigration, and a catastrophic oil spill, will leave in September to become president of the University of California system. Napolitano had her eye on becoming the next attorney general but now is taking herself out of the Washington arena.
Her departure deprives the administration of one of its most prominent voices on immigration even as it is in the throes of pushing Congress for an overhaul that would provide a pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million foreigners who are in the United States illegally. A person close to Napolitano said she had decided to leave only after concluding that her absence would not affect chances for the immigration legislation, but that confirmation of a successor could become wrapped up in the larger immigration debate.
Her move west creates an opening that could be hard for President Obama to fill. The secretary of homeland security presides over a sprawling department that was created after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by combining nearly two dozen agencies as varied as the Secret Service, Transportation Security Administration, Coast Guard, and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Aides said the president had made no decision about who would take her place, but jockeying began instantly. Some lawmakers even began campaigning for preferred candidates.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, called Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, to recommend Raymond W. Kelly, the New York police commissioner. Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware and chairman of the homeland security committee, made a case for Jane Holl Lute, the department’s former deputy secretary.
Others mentioned as possible candidates included FEMA’s administrator, W. Craig Fugate; John S. Pistole, the TSA administrator; William J. Bratton, who has headed the police departments in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston; Admiral Thad W. Allen, a former Coast Guard commandant; and Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman from California.
Napolitano, 55, a New York native, is one of Obama’s favorite Cabinet secretaries and was one of his finalists for the Supreme Court. After Obama’s reelection, when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. considered stepping down, her associates said she was interested in succeeding him. Holder stayed, however, and has not said when he might leave.
The homeland security job put Napolitano in the middle of a wide range of volatile issues, including the Boston Marathon bombings, Hurricane Sandy, and the BP oil spill. She presided over the extensive deportation of illegal immigrants while enacting a policy intended to allow some to stay if they were brought here as children.
Napolitano was seen as more effective outside the public spotlight. Her speeches and public statements seemed stiff and forced. Privately, however, she was funny, sarcastic, and brimming with political gossip. As the former governor of a border state, she had the job’s immigration portfolio down cold but seemed to struggle to understand the complexities and nuances of domestic terrorism challenges.
When a Nigerian man listed in a terrorism database was able to board a Detroit-bound commercial airliner and was later stopped by fellow passengers from blowing up the plane using explosives hidden in his underwear, Napolitano said “the system worked.” After that, she was rarely the administration’s public face during terrorism episodes.
She was credited, however, with imposing more order over a difficult department and with achievements that were important if unsung, according to specialists in the area. One example they cited was a hard-fought agreement with the European Union on sharing passenger and flight data, allowing the authorities to check travelers before their planes take off for the United States, despite European objections.
She does not have an extensive background in higher education, but her father, who died in January, was dean of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. She was the first woman to be valedictorian at Santa Clara University, and she earned a law degree at the University of Virginia.
Napolitano will be the first woman to lead the University of California system, which has 10 campuses, 220,000 students, and 170,000 faculty and staff members. Her predecessor, Mark G. Yudof, is stepping down after five years of dealing with steep cuts in state financing and increases in annual tuition for California residents, to $12,192 this fall from $6,636 in 2007.