WASHINGTON (AP) — Michele Flournoy, a top contender to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, has taken herself out of consideration for the Pentagon's top job, people familiar with the process said Tuesday.

Flournoy's decision underscores the difficulty President Barack Obama may face in finding a candidate to take the helm at the Pentagon late in his second term and as the administration faces intense criticism of its management of crises in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

Other candidates being considered include Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who previously served as the Pentagon's general counsel, according to several people close to the process. Johnson is highly regarded by the West Wing, particularly following the monthslong process he oversaw to identify the immigration executive actions Obama announced last week.

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Given Republicans' staunch opposition to that action, Obama could risk turning Johnson's confirmation hearing into a fierce debate on immigration. The president would also need to fill the top job at Homeland Security again just as the department is implementing the immigration actions.

Two Pentagon veterans are also seen as contenders for the department's top job: former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Robert Work, who holds the No. 2 job at the Pentagon.

Still, Flournoy's decision to withdraw removes a candidate who was seen at the top of Obama's list. Flournoy, who was also considered for the top Pentagon job in 2012, would have been the first woman to become defense secretary.

Flournoy served as a top Pentagon official during Obama's first term and then returned to the Center for a New American Security, the think tank she co-founded. She sent a letter to the think tank's board Tuesday saying she had asked the president to take her out of consideration for the Pentagon job, citing family issues.

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A person close to Flournoy said she had concerns about the job, including whether she would be given more latitude than Hagel in policy making. Pentagon officials have long griped about White House micromanagement, and Hagel was largely seen as someone who would acquiesce to the West Wing.

The White House would not comment on Obama's decision-making process.

"The president is considering a number of well qualified candidates however, I don't have any personnel announcements at this time," National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.

The people familiar with the process insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name. Flournoy's decision was first reported by Foreign Policy magazine.

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