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Janet Napolitano’s Rhetoric of Resiliency

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Ashley D. Garcia, Ph.D.

Santa Rosa Junior College

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and staff boarding a flight, courtesy of the US Embassy of New Zealand, used under public domain.

“In this competitive and fast-moving world, we must continue to write our own story;

otherwise, we give in and allow it to be written for us.”

––AZ Governor, Janet Napolitano

“Americans are by nature a resilient people.”

––Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano

 Arizona, a “hard-core Republican” (McCarthy & Schwartz, 2005, para. 1) state, is renowned for its conservative politicians––from Barry Goldwater to the war hero Senator John McCain to the first female justice of the Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor to “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio. Amidst these conservative powerhouses, liberal Janet Napolitano garnered enough support to be elected Governor. As an activist and politician, Janet Napolitano dedicated herself to the citizens of Arizona, the Southwestern states, and the country. Her dedication to public service is witnessed in three critical capacities: as Governor of Arizona, as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and as President of the University of California (UC) system. Although Janet Napolitano faced personal and political obstacles that would dissuade others from public service, she persisted. Her political achievements attest to her tenacity, and her oratory exemplifies a rhetoric of resiliency.

Janet Napolitano was in the public spotlight as an orator in each critical capacity. Goldstein (2008) argues, “Napolitano’s rhetoric––and governing style––has proved both successful and wildly popular” (para. 3). Some, such as Tyrangiel (2002), believe that Napolitano “has a bit of a charisma problem” (para. 4) or Baker and Lewin (2013), that “her speeches and public statements seemed stiff and forced” (para. 13), but others, such as Goldstein (2008), believe she “is both wonky and charismatic” (para. 8). Despite being five feet four inches, “she is a powerful, self-possessed speaker” (Goldstein, 2008, para. 6) with a “law-and-order credibility” (para. 23). Yet, her manner is both “low-key and businesslike” (Rauch, 2005, para. 1). Like Hillary Clinton, she continually emphasizes her experience, tenacity, and policy chops in a sort of self-justification that is rarely heard from male politicians (Goldstein, 2008). Playing politics is one of Napolitano’s esteemed assets (Cottle, 2010). So, even though the assessments of Janet Napolitano are wildly diverse, she has still been able to harness the political support of her constituency to advance her political career. Janet Napolitano exhibits personal resilience, yet I contend it is her development of a rhetoric of resiliency in her public addresses that propelled her political ascendancy. Her rhetoric of resiliency relies on her crafting normalcy during trying times in Arizona and the broader United States (US) by specifically affirming the identity anchors of Arizonans while Governor and Americans as Secretary of DHS.

Napolitano’s rhetoric of resiliency was conceived during her State of the State Addresses, yet became mature and explicit in her State of America’s Homeland Security Addresses when she narrated the evolution of homeland security. Buzzanell (2010) defines human resilience as “the ability to ‘bounce back’ or reintegrate after difficult life experiences” (p. 1). She claims that resilience operates through several communicative processes: crafting normalcy, affirming identity anchors, maintaining and using communication networks, putting alternative logics to work, and downplaying negative feelings while foregrounding positive emotions, such as hopelessness and self-efficacy (Buzzanell, 2010). In her State of the State Addresses, Napolitano’s rhetoric of resiliency appears through her metaphors. From “climbing a mountain,” “the road to recovery,” or “writing a story,” Napolitano demonstrated the continual process of crafting normalcy. According to Buzzanell (2010), crafting normalcy is “both an ongoing process and a perceived desirable outcome” (p. 3). Napolitano’s vision of a New Arizona runs through these addresses highlighting her goal’s desired outcome and affirming her constituents’ identity anchor as Arizonans. She extended this logic as Secretary of DHS to focus on Americans rather than Arizonans. Additionally, a close reading of Napolitano’s State of America’s Homeland Security Addresses reveals a central theme of her approach to protecting the country: resilience. In both positions, first as Governor and then as Secretary, Janet Napolitano took office facing insurmountable obstacles. Being the resilient politician and woman she is, she rose to face and conquer both challenges. Her legacy should be remembered not only for her political successes but also for her rhetoric of resiliency.[1]

Early Life & Career

Janet Napolitano, born in New York City in 1957 (Cottle, 2010; Goldstein, 2008), grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico where her father, an anatomy professor, served as dean of the University of New Mexico Medical School (Goldstein, 2008; Yglesias, 2008). She majored in political science at Santa Clara University where she graduated in 1979 as the school’s first female valedictorian, summa cum laude (Baker & Lewin, 2013; Cottle, 2010; DHS, 2013; DHS, 2016). She then worked as an analyst for the Senate Budget Committee before attending law school at The University of Virginia (Brock, 1993; Goldstein, 2008). She received her Juris Doctor (J.D.) in 1983 (DHS, 2013). After law school, she settled in Phoenix, Arizona where she clerked for Judge Mary Schroeder of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (Brock, 1993; Goldstein, 2008; Yglesias, 2008). Following her clerkship, she specialized in appellate and commercial litigation at Lewis & Roca, a well-known Phoenix law firm (Brock, 1993; Goldstein, 2008). It is notable because its senior partner, John Frank, argued the landmark Miranda case before the Supreme Court in 1966 (Brock, 1993; Goldstein, 2008).

In October 1991, Frank received a call from Sen. Dennis DeConcini, an Arizona Democrat, asking him to represent Anita Hill when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee (Goldstein, 2008). Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of a prolonged pattern of sexual harassment (Brock, 1993; Goldstein, 2008; Mccarthy, 2005). Frank agreed and brought Napolitano to Washington to assist him (Brock, 1993; Goldstein, 2008). She prepared the testimonies of Hill’s supporting witnesses (Goldstein, 2008). It was due to these hearings that Napolitano became a national figure in 1991 (Cottle, 2010; Mccarthy, 2005). In 1993, Bill Clinton appointed Napolitano as US attorney for Arizona, despite her lack of prosecutorial experience (Cottle, 2010; Goldstein, 2008). As US attorney, she dealt with high-profile domestic terrorism cases, including one tied to the Oklahoma City bombing (Cottle, 2010; DHS, 2013). After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, Napolitano underwent a mastectomy just three weeks before addressing the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles (Cottle, 2010; Mccarthy, 2005). In 2002, after five years as a federal prosecutor and four years as a state attorney general, Napolitano was elected to the top governmental position in Arizona by fewer than 12,000 votes (Rauch, 2005).

Governor of Arizona

Janet Napolitano became the first Democrat to be elected Governor of Arizona since 1987 (Mccarthy 2005; Tyrangiel, 2002) and was, at the time, one of just eight female governors in the US (Goldstein, 2008). In a state “where Democrats are often thought to be an endangered species” (Rauch, 2005, para. 4), this was no small feat. Republicans enjoyed a five-point advantage in voter registration and controlled both US Senate seats, six of the eight US House seats, and both chambers in the state legislature (Rauch, 2005). Further evidence of Arizona’s conservative bent is seen in presidential election results. Only three Democratic presidential nominees have won Arizona in the general election: Harry Truman in 1948, Bill Clinton in 1996, and Joe Biden in 2020 (CNN, n.d.). Against this political backdrop, Napolitano began her first term as Governor in 2003 (Mccarthy, 2005), effectively laying the foundation for other Democratic candidates. In 2022, former Secretary of State Katie Hobbs defeated her Republican challenger by roughly 17,000 votes (Watson, 2023).

Arizona was experiencing numerous problems when Napolitano’s governorship began, and starting with her Inaugural Address, she developed her vision of a New Arizona. During her Inaugural Address on January 5, 2003, she positioned herself as a “no-nonsense, pro-business centrist” who worked outside party lines to “re-energize a state that . . . was marked by recession and scandal” (Mccarthy, 2005, para. 1). It was during this Address that she laid the foundation for her future addresses with an emphasis on building what she termed a “New Arizona” (Napolitano, 2003a, para. 16). Napolitano demonstrated that she could not bring about the changes necessary to right Arizona’s course alone; success would only be achieved through the collective “we:”

We must ensure that prosperity wins over desperation and becomes the norm for all Arizonans. To do this, we must come back together as one, united in the knowledge that we need each other, and bound by our commitment to each other. My friends, we are all in this together [emphasis added].” (Napolitano, 2003a, para. 13-14)

In this “we,” Napolitano defines the Governor as another citizen of Arizona, just like them, working to better the state. She actively closed the gap between the government and the people of Arizona to unite them in making changes to attain her vision for a “new Arizona where hope and opportunity abound” (Napolitano, 2003a, para. 21). The construction of the New Arizona in her speeches crafted normalcy––which she continued to develop in her State of the State Addresses–– because “normal” is both an ongoing process and a perceived desirable outcome (Buzzanell, 2010, p. 3). Janet Napolitano slowly crafted a new normalcy through an ongoing process that took several years to attain the desirable outcome, which resulted in significant changes for the state.

State of the State Addresses

Napolitano’s seven State of the State Addresses worked to craft this new normalcy. The first was presented a little over a week after her Inaugural Address to the 46th Arizona Legislature’s First Regular Session. In this address, Napolitano (2003b) used the metaphor of starting the “long journey back up the mountain” (p. 1). Just as a hiker is rewarded with a spectacular view after scaling a mountain, Arizonans would reap the benefits as their Governor actively sought to implement changes for the betterment of the state. This metaphor also allowed Napolitano to emphasize Arizona’s renewal: “It is up to us to put this great state on a path of renewal, by fixing our short-term problems and focusing on our long-term vision of a new Arizona” (Napolitano, 2003b, p. 2). Her long-term plan for a New Arizona included an emphasis on five priorities: (1) education, (2) economy, (3) homeland security, (4) children and seniors, and (5) land and water preservation (Napolitano, 2003b). This metaphoric journey to attain Napolitano’s five priorities represented the ongoing process of crafting a new normalcy that would find its way, albeit in various ways, into each of her State of the State Addresses.

Governor Napolitano’s second State of the State Address, presented to the 46th Arizona Legislature’s second regular session on January 12, 2004, focused on the next steps needed to progress beyond the past year’s successes regarding each of her five priorities. Here though she moved from the metaphor of scaling a mountain to seeking renewal through the road to recovery. At the end of the speech, she stated: “We are on the road to recovery because we have found within ourselves the resolve and optimism to return Arizona to the grandeur of Its roots” (Napolitano, 2004, p. 12). Whereas scaling the mountain focused on the arduous process of crafting a new normalcy, this metaphor of recovery emphasizes attaining the perceived desirable outcome, returning Arizona to its spectacular origin. The road to recovery also affirms identity anchors, the second process in constructing resilience (Buzzanell, 2010). Buzzanell (2010) defines an identity anchor as “a relatively enduring cluster of identity discourses upon which individuals and their familial, collegial, and/or community members rely when explaining who they are for themselves and in relation to each other” (p. 4). Napolitano appealed to long-term Arizonans who knew what the state once was and wanted to return it to that previous perception of greatness. In other words, Napolitano was identifying with the citizens of Arizona who were interested in making changes to the state they called home.

On January 10, 2005, in her third State of the State Address to the 47th Arizona Legislature’s first regular session, Governor Napolitano demonstrated the process of creating normalcy through the image of pioneers and settlers. Just as the pioneers/settlers of the 19th century faced numerous challenges in search of better opportunities, Arizonans must confront the challenges of the day to fulfill their mission. She reflected on “the progress we have made together” (Napolitano, 2005, p. 1). Although these achievements are something to be proud of, she stated: “this is not a record to rest on; it is a record to build on” (p. 2) to keep moving Arizona forward. Again, she continued to discuss the same five priorities from 2003, with education being the first and most vital and security––family and homeland––being the second. She claimed, “previous governors have not had to talk about homeland security in state of the state addresses” (Napolitano, 2005, p. 6), demonstrating her increasing investments in the security of not just Arizona but of the entire nation. Her motto in this speech was “yes, we can” (Napolitano, 2005, p. 1). She ended by invoking the example of a resilient group of people, the pioneers/settlers of the 19th century. In doing so, she called Arizonans to confront the challenges Arizona faces because they too are resilient and can move beyond these trying times.

On January 9, 2006, in her fourth State of the State Address to the 47th Arizona Legislature’s second regular session, Napolitano emphasized that Arizona is safe, strong, and prosperous; three desired outcomes and significant components of her ongoing process of crafting normalcy. Napolitano claimed that Arizona is strong and continually growing stronger, but more work still needs to be done regarding the same five priorities she has previously addressed (although some of these priorities were altered in this speech). She emphasized the motto, “safe, strong, and prosperous” (Napolitano, 2006, p. 1), which she argued had been her guidepost over the previous three years. Napolitano (2006) worked each day “to build an Arizona that is ever more safe, ever more strong, and ever more prosperous” (p. 1). Safety refers to security, stronger refers to education, and prosperous refers to the economy. She concluded, “it is time to recommit to the work we do for Arizona––creating a state that is safe, strong, and prosperous” (Napolitano, 2006, p. 11). Safe, strong, and prosperous represented the three desired outcomes and were significant components of her ongoing process of crafting normalcy in Arizona.

In the 2007 State of the State Address, delivered to the 48th Arizona Legislature’s first regular session on January 8, Napolitano (2007) emphasized unity, transforming her vision of a New Arizona to “One Arizona” (p. 1). Arizona is strong, she claimed, but it could be stronger: “I believe this independent, confident, growing state of ours can be even stronger” (Napolitano, 2007, p. 1). By referring to Arizona as a growing state, she reminded her audience that the journey of crafting a new normalcy––a New Arizona––would now continue through transforming her five priorities into three components of the “One Arizona Plan” (Napolitano, 2007, p. 1): education, foundation, and innovation. Although “foundation” works to build the infrastructure for growth (Napolitano, 2007, p. 5), the heart of her plan is the “One Arizona Education Initiative” (p. 2). Educating the next generation of Arizonans is vital to future innovation. Napolitano (2007) claimed, “nothing will be more important to our success than our ability to innovate––to wonder, then imagine; to invent, then to build” (p. 8), which drove her “Innovation Arizona” (p. 9) plan. The fusion of education, foundation, and innovation describes Napolitano’s vision of a united Arizona, which is her desired end to the normalcy process. Arizonans must, however, be resilient now to achieve this vision of a more united state.

Napolitano’s second to last State of the State Address, delivered on January 14, 2008, to the 48th Arizona Legislature’s second regular session, centered on writing the story of Arizona’s successes. Although national budgetary and economic woes influenced Arizona, they did not define Arizona. Her message was “clear: the state of Arizona is strong, And together, we are writing the story of its future” (Napolitano, 2008, p. 1). Despite community differences, all are part of the overarching state, uniting it as One Arizona; for “we are many communities, but we are One Arizona, and we must work together so our story for the future reflects that” (Napolitano, 2008, p. 8). Working together, Napolitano (2008) described the story of Arizona’s future as “a powerful narrative, one of progress, action[,] and success. It is not one we can allow to be cut short because of a temporary economic condition” (p. 10). Like the earlier metaphors, writing a story emphasizes the ongoing process of crafting normalcy through interlocking chapters: (1) education, (2) economic prosperity in a diverse knowledge-based economy, (3) security and public safety, (4) transportation and growth, and (5) health care (Napolitano, 2008). These five chapters revise the 2003 edition of her story of Arizona, as she proclaimed: “My friends, we are writing the story of Arizona’s future. Let’s make it a classic” (Napolitano, 2008, p. 12). The process of writing a story is the process of crafting normalcy, but the result, the final classic, is the perceived desirable outcome. This outcome will be a success story that makes Arizonans proud. 

Napolitano’s final State of the State Address, presented on January 12, 2009, to the 49th Arizona Legislature’s first regular session, departed from the previous six to reflect on her six-year governorship. Knowing she would most likely be confirmed as Secretary of Homeland Security, she called upon others to emulate her example by moving the state she loves so dearly forward. Napolitano’s (2009) opening was bittersweet:

This is a day of mixed emotions. On the one hand, I am very sad that this is very likely the final time I will address Arizonans in this manner. On the other hand, I am confident about the future of this state and proud of the work we have done together. (p. 1)

The nearing end of Napolitano’s governorship signaled the conclusion of her process of crafting normalcy in Arizona. Someone else would now be called to serve the state, and she hoped they would continue the process she began. The theme of this speech was thus a call to service:

I have been called by our President-elect [Barack Obama] to serve in a new way, during extraordinary times. I am not alone in this call to serve. Indeed, this difficult time calls upon all of us to offer ourselves to the greater good, to build a stronger state and a stronger country. (Napolitano, 2009, p. 1)

Once again, albeit differently, Napolitano affirmed the identity anchor Arizonans by calling on Arizonans to serve the greater good of the state. She described how the call to service comes in numerous forms: as a member of the armed forces, as a legislator in the state capitol, and as a volunteer in the community. Near the end of her address, she stated, “I trust that when I return home, I will find an Arizona that continued to build its long-term future––an Arizona that has realized even more of what it can be” (Napolitano, 2009, p. 7). This future Arizona is the culmination of the One Arizona vision she constructed over the last several years.

Although a Democratic Governor of a predominantly conservative state, Napolitano’s approval ratings soared. In 2005, she received national recognition. Time named Napolitano one of America’s five best governors (Ripley & Tumulty, 2005), and in the summer of 2005, Napolitano became the first woman to chair the National Governors Association (DHS, 2013; Mccarthy, 2005). At home, in 2006, her closest rivals were 29 points behind her 70 percent approval rating, which was almost double that of the state legislature (Rauch, 2005), leading to her re-election in 2006 with more than 60 percent of the vote, making her Arizona’s first democratic governor to be reelected in 25 years (Goldstein, 2008; Yglesias, 2008). Although an honor “to be selected by my Republican and Democratic peers alike, to serve” (Napolitano, 2007, p. 9), during her tenure, Republican control dwindled to six seats in the House and four in the Senate (Goldstein, 2008). Arizona Republicans admit that she fundamentally altered the Arizona political game via her appeal to moderates (Goldstein, 2008). As Governor, she issued a record number of vetoes, more than any governor in Arizona’s history (Goldstein, 2008; Yglesias, 2008), which provided her “an opportunity to make government even more efficient and effective” (Napolitano, 2008, p. 11). As Napolitano stated in many of her State of the State Addresses, being the governor of Arizona was a privilege (Napolitano, 2005; Napolitano, 2006; Napolitano, 2007), but she could not reject the call to join the Obama Administration mid-way through her second term (DHS, 2013).

Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

On January 21, 2009, Janet Napolitano took over the third largest and relatively young Cabinet department: Homeland Security (Cottle, 2010; DHS, 2013). Her administrative competence, legal acumen, and often neglected counterterrorism and homeland experience (Cottle, 2010; DHS, 2013) allowed her to fulfill the department’s founding mission to prevent terrorist attacks (Napolitano, 2013a). Napolitano, the first woman and longest-serving Secretary of Homeland Security, served in this capacity for almost the entirety of President Obama’s administration (DHS, 2016; Dinan & Waterman, 2013). During her tenure as Secretary, she delivered three State of America’s Homeland Security Addresses, each of which participated in the rhetoric of resiliency that she developed in her State of the State Addresses. Napolitano also invoked the theme of resilience regarding national security in each address.

State of America’s Homeland Security Addresses

Janet Napolitano began a new tradition of assessing America’s homeland security on January 27, 2011, in her first State of America’s Homeland Security Address at George Washington University (Napolitano, 2011). In this address, she continued her rhetoric of resiliency, emphasizing that the nation’s security demands the engagement of our entire society, requiring national resilience (Napolitano, 2011). She broadened her One Arizona vision to the national level by invoking a “whole of nation approach,” which, she argued, “will bring us to the level of security and resilience we require” (Napolitano, 2011, para. 12). Security is a “shared responsibility” (Napolitano, 2011, para. 14), and “we are all in this together[;] . . . we all have a role to play” (para. 20). This whole nation approach extends her affirmation of identity anchors by demonstrating how Americans must unite the nation to secure it successfully. In this address, she outlined four areas of focus for the upcoming year: (1) counterterrorism, (2) border security and immigration, (3) cybersecurity, science, and technology, and (4) resilience and response. This continued in Napolitano’s second State of America’s Homeland Security Address, delivered on January 30, 2012. Here, Napolitano (2012) combined the rhetoric and theme of resilience. She affirmed that “Americans are by nature a resilient people” and the role of DHS “is to be part of the team that fosters that resilience” (para. 22). She also discussed how memorials are a visual symbol of the nation’s resilience, and despite the various forms of attacks that the US faces, “we will always come back stronger from tragedy and adversity” (Napolitano, 2012, para. 117). She emphasized how the process of resilience is ongoing: America will continue to face attacks, but it will continue to rise above these atrocities as a stronger, more united nation.  

Napolitano’s (2013a) third and final State of America’s Homeland Security Address, delivered on February 26, 2013, just days shy of the department’s tenth anniversary, reflected on the resilience of the department and its development. Reflecting on the changes made during the first ten years, Napolitano (2013a) broke the department’s history down into DHS 1.0, DHS 2.0, and DHS 3.0. Two of the principles that define DHS 3.0 are “agility and resilience” (Napolitano, 2013a, para. 37). In her closing, Napolitano (2013a) argued that it is time for DHS 3.0, which is her desired outcome for the department. A few months later, on July 12, 2013, Napolitano announced her resignation as Secretary of Homeland Security to become the first female President of the University of California (Baker & Lewin, 2013). In her resignation statement, Napolitano (2013b) claimed that serving President Obama as the Secretary of DHS “has been the highlight of my professional career” (para. 1). In a statement addressing her resignation, President Obama thanked Napolitano for her service: “the American people are safer and more secure thanks to Janet’s leadership in protecting our homeland” (Obama, 2013, para. 1). Napolitano’s resignation included a brief reflection in which she emphasized her efforts to “build resiliency” (para. 1), which was a great way to wrap up one of the key themes of her tenure as Secretary (DHS, 2016).  


As Governor, Janet Napolitano made it abundantly clear that her top priority was education. Despite having her eye on becoming attorney general or one of President Obama’s finalists for a Supreme Court nomination (Baker & Lewin, 2013), Janet Napolitano’s service as the 20th president of the University of California is fitting (DHS, 2016). When Napolitano became UC President, the system had ten campuses, 220,000 students, and 170,000 faculty and staff members (Baker & Lewin, 2013). Despite not having an extensive background in higher education (Baker & Lewin, 2013), Napolitano welcomed “a new chapter in a remarkable career of public service” (Obama, 2013, para. 1). Early in this new chapter, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2015 (DHS, 2016). Her ability to serve in these varying yet significant roles is a testament to the resilience she fosters as a public service figure.

Napolitano’s work in these three critical capacities––Governor of Arizona, Secretary of Homeland Security, and President of the UC system––demonstrated her commitment to public service. Each role exemplified her resilience as a leader. First tasked with fixing numerous issues in a conservative state, then protecting national security, and finally, battling the problems of education in a sizeable public university system. A close reading of her State of the State Addresses and her State of America’s Homeland Security Addresses reveals a rhetoric of resiliency. This rhetoric of resiliency is first exemplified in her State of the State Addresses through varying metaphors; each contributed to her continual process of crafting normalcy for Arizonans. Her perceived desirable outcome for the state was her vision of a New Arizona, and she affirmed that identity anchor of her constituents as Arizonans who can achieve this goal. When she became Secretary of Homeland Security, she took a more augmented approach, moving the identity anchor from Arizonans to Americans. When discussing the nation’s security, she continuously emphasized the necessity of resilience. For Janet Napolitano (2008), “our story is . . . about a government that lived up to its end of the bargain, and didn’t give up when the going got a little tough” (p. 11). Resilience, as shown throughout this analysis, was the thread that runs through each chapter of Napolitano’s marvelous public service career story.


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Watson, K. (2023, January 2). Democrat Katie Hobbs sworn in as Arizona governor. CBS. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-facebook-instagram-active-today-2023-02-09/ 

Yglesias, M. (2008, February 22). The 2008 veepstakes. The American Prospect. http://prospect.org/article/2008-veepstakes

[1] Napolitano’s University of California speeches and op-eds have been excluded from this analysis due to the paper’s scope and to allow for a more focused analysis of her rhetoric of resilience as exhibited during her governmental tenure as both Governor of Arizona and as Secretary of Homeland Security. The University of California’s Office of the President (n.d.) has archived 24 of Napolitano’s speeches and op-eds between the fall of 2013 and the present. 

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