Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who has served in President Obama's Cabinet since Day One of his administration, announced Friday that she would step down to become president of the University of California system.
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. Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona who had been seen as a potential Democratic presidential candidate, will exit the political stage to run one of the nation's largest public university systems.
As homeland security chief, Napolitano has been a central figure in the immigration debate as well as the government's counterterrorism policies and responses to natural disasters. Her resignation comes at a critical time for the Obama administration, as the House debates a bill to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
In a statement released Friday morning, Napolitano said that serving in the Obama administration has been a "privilege."
"The opportunity to work with the dedicated men and women of the Department of Homeland Security, who serve on the front lines of our nation's efforts to protect our communities and families from harm, has been the highlight of my professional career," Napolitano said.
An early political backer of Obama who joined his administration in 2009, Napolitano was among the first-term Cabinet officials to remain in their posts into Obama's second term.
Napolitano had given no indication publicly 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.
"The process was underway for some time, but it didn't formalize until recently, and she informed the president when she made her decision," said the official, who requested anonymity to speak about the process.
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. And as she begins a new chapter in a remarkable career of public service, I wish her the best of luck."
Napolitano has been at the front lines in the politically charged immigration debate, given her department's role in securing the nation's border with Mexico. She also 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.