Faced with the international outbreak of swine flu and mounting concern about the threat to Americans, the Obama administration is relying on a member of the president’s Cabinet with almost no background in medicine: Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security.
Over the last two days, Napolitano has been a constant presence on television and in news reports, urging calm and offering reassurance while laying out the facts and the government’s response to the outbreak.
On Monday, in her characteristically clipped, official tone, she gave the first of what the White House said would be daily briefings on the federal response to the flu outbreak.
Under the law, this is the job of the secretary of Homeland Security, who in addition to protecting the nation against terrorism is charged with overseeing the nation’s response to possible pandemics, even as clinicians and researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies work to track the disease.
Beyond the mandate, Napolitano bears the burden of dealing with the kind of natural disaster that can blindside a new administration and morph into a major headache almost overnight if not handled effectively.
In her three-month career in Washington, the 51-year-old former Arizona governor has found herself in the eye of a storm more than once.
Napolitano has been forced to tackle an increasingly bloody drug war along the Mexican border. And this month, she found her department embroiled in controversy over a report that returning war veterans could “boost the capabilities” of right-wing extremist groups.
Still, the challenges of being the nation’s senior emergency official imposes demands all its own, not least the degree to which something like an epidemic can be reacted to but not controlled.
“This is a job where no good deed goes unpunished,” said Scott Weber, former counsel to President George W. Bush’s Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff.
Especially in recent years, emergencies have not always been kind to federal officials. In 2005, Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Bush, infamously personified the administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina.
Weber, a partner at lobbying powerhouse Patton Boggs, said it was too early to assess Napolitano’s performance. He noted that she had the right background, however.
In six years in the governor’s mansion, Napolitano guided Arizona through a difficult push to beef up security along the state’s border with Mexico, an initiative that required extensive coordination with federal officials.
Before being elected, Napolitano served as U.S. attorney in Arizona in the Clinton administration and helped investigate the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case.
The Homeland Security secretary’s responsibility for natural disasters and other emergencies, including pandemics, was set out in a 2003 directive issued by Bush when the Department of Homeland Security was created. Napolitano’s visibility has been further elevated because the posts of secretary of Health and Human Services, surgeon general and director of the CDC have not been filled.
The White House has repeatedly said that those vacancies were not handicapping the government’s response to the flu outbreak. (President Obama’s nominee to head Health and Human Services, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, is expected to be confirmed by the Senate today.)
Gerald Epstein, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who specializes in domestic security, said he did not think the vacancies posed a problem.
“We really won’t know until we see some evidence that this is a national emergency,” he said.
Epstein and other domestic security experts said Napolitano appeared to be taking the right steps to prepare for a possible pandemic. Those steps include coordinating with state and local officials, who have historically had responsibility in dealing with public health issues.
At her briefing Monday, Napolitano said she had been in contact with governors of the states where flu cases had been identified. She said she had also talked to the Mexican ambassador about the deadly outbreak in his country.
Napolitano indicated that federal Homeland Security officials had stepped up their surveillance of people coming across the Mexican border. And she pledged that all states would have access to the national stockpile of antiviral drugs.
“Swine flu is a cause for concern, but not a cause for alarm,” Napolitano said, repeating words she has emphasized in recent days. “We are simply in preparation mode.”
Balancing caution and reassurance will be key to Napolitano’s success, Epstein said.
“It is a fine line. You don’t want to panic. But false assurance is also deadly. . . . It’s important to be reassuring only when the facts are reassuring,” he said.
It will also be important for Napolitano to convey a command of the facts, said Paul Begala, a former advisor to President Clinton.
“You fight fear with facts, not platitudes,” he said. “She has a very much no-nonsense, just-the-facts manner that will help.”