Her resignation comes at a critical time for the Obama administration, as Congress debates a controversial bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Napolitano’s departure has been in the works for several months, and she plans to leave her post in early September, according to two administration officials.
A former governor of Arizona and a Democrat once seen as a potential candidate for national office, Napolitano, 55, will exit the political stage to run one of the country’s largest public university systems.
In a statement released Friday morning, she said that serving in the Obama administration to help protect Americans from harm “has been the highlight of my professional career.”
“We have worked together to minimize threats of all kinds to the American public,” she added.
In addition to being on the front lines in the politically charged immigration debate, Napolitano helped lead the responses to deadly tornadoes in the Midwest and Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the Northeast last year, as well as the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the H1N1 virus.
Some of her actions have come under scrutiny. Critics faulted her for playing a role in toughening airport security procedures, including through the introduction of full-body scanners. More recently, she was questioned by Congress on whether DHS agencies missed clues about the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Obama thanked Napolitano for her more than four years of service, saying, “Janet’s portfolio has included some of the toughest challenges facing our country.”
“The American people are safer and more secure thanks to Janet’s leadership in protecting our homeland against terrorist attacks,” Obama said in a statement. “I’ve come to rely on Janet’s judgment and advice, but I’ve also come to value her friendship.”
An early political backer of Obama’s who was sworn in as homeland security secretary in 2009 on the first day of his administration, Napolitano was among a handful of Cabinet officials to remain in their posts into his second term.
She had given no public indication that she would leave, although she was seen as a possible successor to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. should he depart.
Administration officials said Napolitano, who had extensive law enforcement experience in Arizona, did not hide her desire to be attorney general and grew discouraged about her prospects as Holder stayed well into Obama’s second term.
One administration official familiar with Napolitano’s thinking cautioned that she simply seized what she considered to be a great career opportunity, calculating that after serving longer than any other homeland security secretary, it was time for a new challenge.