Why Obama Doesn’t Want To Part With Janet Napolitano

It’s no secret that Janet Napolitano is one of President Obama’s favorite Cabinet members. But as her name continues to linger at the bottom of his Supreme Court shortlist, the fact that she’s among the busiest in the administration is a signal she’s unlikely to be chosen for a new job on the high court any time soon.

As Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Napolitano has her hands full handling some of the administration’s biggest priorities and crises. From immigration to oil spills to airline security and domestic terror threats, Napolitano’s department is tasked with major initiatives that have her traveling the country and appearing frequently on television. Plus, DHS oversees FEMA, so she isn’t a stranger to handling weather threats and working on the administration’s Katrina rebuilding effort.

She was in Obama’s final four last spring and remains on the list this year as he nears a decision to replacing retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. Sources close to Obama have said she was chosen for her current spot — after being considered for several others — because of her long career in public service and her civil rights record. She’s also a breast cancer survivor. These qualities all fit the bill for those empathetic characteristics Obama is seeking in a new justice, but selecting Napolitano is less certain because she’s both needed and embroiled in many heated policy changes.Last spring Obama “could make the case for each one” of his final four nominees, the White House said then, with aides acknowledging this year that any of those four would be top potentials this year. The White House won’t rank the shortlisters but it’s not surprising Napolitano’s name is being bandied about less frequently in recent days as the immigration battle ramps up and while she’s busy outlining the Coast Guard response to the oil spill.

When I wrote a profile last spring about Napolitano, 52, I was struck by how many people talked about her commitment to civil rights at each stage in her career, including as she delivered the valedictory speech during her college graduation.

That’s one reason it was no surprise Obama was interviewing her for the job.

But a year later, and after her standing diminished slightly when she insisted the system “worked” following the Christmas Day bombing attempt, the White House wants to avoid having any vacancies at such a high profile department. Were Napolitano to be nominated she’d be immediately sidetracked by the confirmation process and a replacement would also be put through the wringer given the prominence of the job. Not to mention the sluggish pace of the Senate could mean a critical department would be left unstaffed at the top. My sources wouldn’t say a Napolitano appointment to the high court was impossible, but admitted those factors aren’t helpful to her candidacy.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told Jake Tapper yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” that he thinks Napolitano would be a good justice. During that interview, Napolitano reminded Tapper she is both a former U.S. attorney and attorney general. She also was elected twice as governor of Arizona.

Napolitano said she believes the new Arizona immigration law “does and can invite racial profiling,” and early in her legal career she sued the Immigration and Naturalization Service while representing political refugees. Now, the INS falls under her department. She also is familiar with the Supreme Court nomination process, having represented Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.

Napolitano’s speech as Santa Clara University graduates selected her as their first female valedictorian served as foreshadowing for her career in public service to come.

“Most valedictory speeches are not memorable, but she found a way to capture what it is to be an engaged citizen and a public intellectual,” Janet Flammang, chairwoman of Santa Clara’s political science department, told me last spring. “She was calling on her 22-year-old colleagues to understand the rules, and when things aren’t working, you have an obligation to change them.”