It’s not even been a full month into the second term of the Obama administration and people are already sizing up the prospects for who will be the president’s successor. This kind of talk is no surprise. Talk of presidential aspirants is a full time cottage industry of sorts, but not just inside the Capital Beltway. You’ll also find it in full swing in the feed stores in Iowa, diners in New Hampshire, and of course the blogosphere, cable television, and pundit-driven social media. Names like Biden, Clinton, Rubio, Christie, and Ryan are already out there, with political people, fundraisers and handlers at the ready to help anyone of them make the big 2016 run, but another name has popped up recently that has caused a few wide-eyed glances – that of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.
For as much as people are surprised by her mention, they really shouldn’t be. When she was first tapped as DHS secretary, her name was already on a number of reporters’ and political watchers’ lists as someone to watch for a future White House run. The former federal prosecutor, state attorney general and two-time governor of Arizona has a solid record to consider that makes her more than qualified. Add to that the fact that she is now the longest-tenured DHS secretary the nation has ever had.
Where it was easy to pick on Barack Obama when he first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004 – let alone president in 2008 – for his very, very thin legislative record, that criticism won’t be a problem for Napolitano if she decides to run for Senate (for John McCain’s Arizona Senate seat in 2014) or the White House in 2016. She has more than enough actions under her belt to fully arm her potential supporters as well as her critics.
A White House run is certainly not for the weak-willed or timid. Nowadays nothing is ever off limits or out of bounds in such a campaign. Opposition researchers, reporters, bloggers, and pundits, as well as supporters, fundraisers and allies will go through every moment of a candidate’s life, from their first breath to the one they just exhaled, looking for anything to make their case for or against her. It is a cruel, grueling, if not humiliating process to run for president, but that’s the way we do it in this country, as repulsive, sad and wretched as it may be. While admitting that I once held such lofty ambitions myself way back when, I can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would ever want a job like that, let alone put their family through the meatgrinder process of pursuing it.
With her candidacy trial balloon now floated for public reaction (either willingly or unwillingly) Napolitano’s name is now in the mix of things, and that has positive and negative impacts for her and the department under her leadership. Here are some quick thoughts on the positives and the negatives – to Napolitano and for DHS – to her being a presidential candidate.
- Media attention – Let’s face it – DHS does not get near the press or media attention it once did. The only homeland security stories that get any attention nowadays are related to bureaucratic fumbles with disaster aid, a TSA airport screening operation gone bad, or a new nuance to the immigration battles. The department certainly deserves more attention (and credit) for what its people do day in and day out, and if Napolitano is in the presidential candidate mix, more attention will come their way as well as hers.
- Mission focus – For all the same reasons that media attention can help tell the story of the department, it can also help reinforce the mission and operations of DHS. The same goes for her leadership of the department. That too will get more attention from supporters and opponents. That can never get enough attention in my book.
- Builds allies – Whether in Congress, the media, or with stakeholder groups, people of all stripes like to meet, if not outright connect with presidential candidates or even those rumored to be thinking about running. For someone like Napolitano, who was not near as publicly visible as some of her other national security and cabinet counterparts in the first term, rumors of her higher aspirations will find people wanting to connect with her, whether she wants it or not.
All three of those things that can be positives are also things that can lead to a prospective candidate’s and organization’s detriment and even undoing. Media attention can come from those with ideological as well as personal agendas, who instead of reporting about the job you’re doing, will focus on the petty, the serious as well as the ridiculous, while also selectively editing pieces (e.g. print, multimedia, etc.) to make you look like crap. Furthermore, any allies you may be building up will be countered by emboldened critics determined to tear you apart or knock you down a peg or two in front of the TV cameras for all to behold.
For every step forward you take, you can be guaranteed to have to take one or two back. Read any of the books or articles about campaigns over the past 50 years and you can see how these trends have increased exponentially with each presidential voting cycle.
For Napolitano, though, she’s in a really difficult position, particularly on the eve of the immigration debate beginning. This is truly her moment to lead, if not shine, given her experience with the issue as a prosecutor, law enforcement officer, politician, and executive branch official. If she’s indeed serious about running for the White House, her potential rivals – both Democrats and Republicans – are not going to want to see her fortunes rise or have her be seen as making a positive difference. Furthermore, her supporters are going to have extremely high expectations that she will make everything right, and sometimes those expectations are unreasonable and can never be fulfilled.
The other challenge she will have is not dragging the department further into politics of the day. That’s a hard order given that there are 120 congressional committees with oversight over DHS, along with the volatility of the issues the department deals with on a daily basis. To somehow balance going to Iowa and New Hampshire – the early voting states – while keeping your eye on the ball at the department and keeping the president and Congress in the loop on what your people are doing to safeguard the country is impossible. Both are full-time jobs where distractions cannot be tolerated and assigned deputies and surrogates can only do so much.
The truth is, if Janet Napolitano wants to run for higher office, be that the U.S. Senate or the Oval Office, her time at the leadership helm of DHS is going to have to come to an abrupt end. Running for any office requires full attention, guts, and stamina, but more than anything it requires a boatload of money and there is no way she can serve as secretary and raise the cash needed to be remotely competitive in the straw polls and early primaries that weigh heavily in the presidential selection process.
Rumors about her candidacy may be flattering to her, but they will be a tremendous distraction to the department and its mission if they are allowed to perpetuate and go unanswered. She owes it to the people she leads at DHS and the bosses she serves (e.g. President Obama, the Congress, and U.S. citizens) to tell us what her plans are. Allowing the rumors to fester and be dragged out serves no one’s interests – even hers if she indeed wants to run.
The question is now being asked in a roundabout way: “Is she going to run?” It’s now her obligation to answer, so we know where her full attention lies.