Janet Napolitano, master multitasker
Homeland defense one moment, swine flu the next. She juggles the disparate needs of a cabinet conglomerate.
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In a way, she has. As President Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security, Ms. Napolitano’s biggest job is to get the many parts and functions of her conglomerate cabinet department to work together.
It’s not an easy task. Homeland Security’s subgroups include the Secret Service, US Customs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Coast Guard. Napolitano’s day can touch on everything from border control to hurricane preparation and protection for the nation’s cyber resources.
All this in an organization that did not even have a departmentwide e-mail system until recently.
“It is very much now in the process of becoming a unitary department,” said Napolitano at a May 19 Monitor breakfast here.
Of course, unity – in an Obamaesque, can’t-we-all-work-together kind of way – has long been one of Napolitano’s political hallmarks. For her, there was no other way to survive as a Democratic official in Arizona, a state long dominated by conservative Republicans.
Her talent for compromise when necessary worked well enough for her to win three statewide elections: one for attorney general and two for governor. Her centrist record on border issues was a reason Mr. Obama picked her for one of the cabinet’s most difficult and sensitive posts.
This doesn’t mean her tenure so far has been as smooth as the White House lawn. Napolitano has angered Canadians with inartful comments linking the problems of the US southern and northern borders. The release of a DHS intelligence assessment contending that US military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan could be susceptible to recruitment by right-wing extremists caused some Republicans to call for her ouster.
“Some things in my initial days have gone very well at the department, and some things have not. And that was probably the worst thing,” said Napolitano of the intelligence assessment, at a House hearing earlier this month.
As governor, she showed political deftness in the way she dealt with Arizona’s conservative legislature, says Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and pollster at Arizona State University in Tempe. Generally, she directly challenged lawmakers on big issues where she felt she was more in touch with constituent opinion – such as voluntary all-day kindergarten, which she steered into law.
“It seemed to me that the issues she went public on had wide public support,” says Dr. Merrill.
On immigration issues – crucial in a border state – Napolitano took ideas from both ends of the political spectrum. Showing a tough side, she was the first governor to call in the National Guard to beef up border patrols. She also pushed through some of the nation’s most stringent laws targeting employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.