Carol Felsenthal
On politics

The Truth About Valerie Jarrett, Mystery Woman of the White House

The close adviser and friend of the Obamas is one of DC’s most powerful people—but what exactly does she do?

Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

What exactly does Valerie Jarrett—the Chicagoan often described as a big sister or mother figure to the Obamas—do in the White House? The instant histories of the Obama White House tend to portray her as the Obamas’ pit bull, a woman loyal only to the president, first lady and her own image. In a recent book on the 2012 campaign, Jonathan Alter writes that Rahm Emanuel, on agreeing to become Obama’s chief of staff, recognized that Jarrett would wield such outsized power that he tried unsuccessfully to finesse her into Obama’s senate seat. (Alter also speculates that Valerie Jarrett was one reason why Rahm hightailed it out of DC in late 2010 into the relative ease of the Fifth Floor.) 

Others in media and Washington circles portray Jarrett, who held top positions in Chicago government and business, as a brilliant strategist and thinker who practically runs both wings of the White House and who did as much or more than anyone to put the Obamas there. In 1991, Jarrett, then Mayor Rich Daley’s deputy chief of staff, offered Michelle Robinson a job in City Hall. Before Michelle accepted, she insisted that Jarrett meet with Michelle’s fiancé Barack Obama. Jarrett promptly took both under her wing and, over the years, introduced Barack to the inner Daley circle, to wealthy business people, and to the people who mattered in her enclave, Hyde Park—all of which helped Obama as he moved up from community organizer to Springfield to Washington.

So which is it? Here are six pieces of conventional wisdom about Valerie Jarrett, 57, followed by, in my opinion, the reality.

1. Valerie Jarrett’s power in Obama’s White House stems from her position as senior adviser to the president.

Yes, she holds a conventional power position in the administration, carrying a portfolio that covers such issues as as how the administration can boost business in a down economy, implement programs to improve the lives of women and girls, develop better communication with state and local governments and other constituency groups.

The reality is that her power stems from friendship with the first couple, forged by after-hour access, total trust that her only motive is to protect the first couple’s images and advance their interests. Valerie Jarrett is not powerful because she creates and implements policy, but because she’s the last person the president and/or first lady talk to, sometimes over dinner in their private dining room. It was reportedly the Obamas who persuaded Jarrett not to pursue appointment to the President-Elect’s vacated U.S. senate seat, but instead to keep close to them in the White House.

She vacations with the first couple in Hawaii and on the Vineyard,  and she can sometimes sound like their flac: Michelle is “fabulous at 50.” Barack is “just too talented to do what ordinary people do” (as quoted in David Remnick’s The Bridge). She decides who’s invited to small White House parties and state dinners. 

Jarrett can save the jobs of people she likes, such as Attorney General Eric Holder, who faced calls for his ouster when he announced his decision to bring Kahlid Sheikh Mohammad to trial in New York. In advocating for Holder, she protected not just a personal favorite but one close to the Obamas as well—after she’d earlier announced that the couple wasn’t making new friends in DC. He kept his job, and is one of only two cabinet secretaries who will likely serve two full terms. Jarrett acquired the nickname “Eric’s appeals court.”

2.  Jarrett has a record of success working for the President in the White House.

There’s always the historical analysis to come, but so far she is considered to have a spotty record, especially on the key portfolio item—serving as the administration’s liaison to business. Jarrett came to the White House with some impressive Chicago business credentials: CEO of The Habitat Company, a Chicago developer of housing ranging from luxury to public; chairman of the CTA; chairman of the board of the Chicago Stock Exchange; a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.  Yet, as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has written, “current and former White House officials … raised questions about Jarrett’s effectiveness and judgment.” 

Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei write that Obama’s “… relations with business leaders could hardly be worse.”

Politico’s Jeanne Cummings and Ben White have characterized the Obama White House’s “…relationship with the corporate world” as having “a sort of Mars-Venus quality to it. Business leaders say Obama simply doesn’t get them and has no one in the White House with corporate experience or who is steeped in the daily challenges of operating in a global economy.”

Jason Horowitz, then writing about Jarrett for the Washington Post, described  “disgruntled Obama donors in the financial industry… [who] have cast Jarrett as insufficiently sophisticated on economic issues and incapable of brooking any dissent about Obama. `I have always thought she was a liability,’ said one prominent investor and donor…. `I’ve talked to people in the White House about it, and they have agreed with me, but they are scared to say anything.’”

It was, well, conventional wisdom, that Bill Daley was brought in as Rahm’s successor as chief of staff to clean up the administration’s messy relationships with business; perhaps understandably, Jarrett did not warm to Daley—and, according to Politico’s Glenn Thrush, “frequently shared her unflattering assessments with Obama.”  Daley’s tenure as COS was short.

3. In Chicago, before the Obama presidency, Jarrett was widely admired for her skills in government and business.

In his latest book, Jonathan Alter writes that the oft-told story of Obama insisting on interviewing Jarrett before allowing his girlfriend to take a job in Daley’s administration did not “amuse” Rich Daley. According to Alter, Daley was no fan of Jarrett, finding her “indecisive as city planning commissioner” and refusing to promote her to chief of staff. Alter also writes that a CEO who visited the White House remarked,  “When we go to the White House we talk to people we wouldn’t hire.” 

In their book on the 2012 campaign, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann write that Wall Streeters “disparaged Obama’s team for lacking anyone with a meaningful background in the private sector. When Jarrett would huff, ‘Well I have one,’ they rolled their eyes; they considered her a political hack, ineffectual and entitled.”

4.  Jarrett is a mother figure to other White House staffers, especially women.

She’s certainly that to Barack and Michelle: “I can count on someone like Valerie to take my hand and say, You need to think about these three things,” Michelle told the New York Times’ Jodie Kantor. “Like a mom, a big sister, I trust her implicitly.”

And she’s certainly that in her own mind: “And I try very hard to make sure that I am available to people here, particularly, I think, women often come to me. I am older than most of the people here, so I try to be a resource.”

Jonathan Alter’s reporting revealed someone quite different: “Staffers feared her, but didn’t like or trust her. At meetings she said little or nothing, instead lingering afterwards to express her views directly to the President, creating anxiety for her underlings and insulting them by saying, `I don’t talk just to hear myself talking.’”

Derogatory nicknames abound for Jarrett: “Keeper of the Essence,” “Night Stalker” (because of her access after hours to the Obamas in their private quarters), “personal custodian of the president’s lofty motives and gifts.” The latter comes from This Town author Mark Leibovich, who quotes from an apparently leaked memo titled “Magic of Valerie,” its 33 talking points circulated to White House staffers ahead of a New York Times Jarrett profile.

The memo cites as her “magic” qualities, “her intellect and her heart. She is an incredibly kind, caring and thoughtful person with a unique ability to pinpoint the voiceless and shine a light on them and the issues they and the President care about…. Valerie has an enormous capacity for both empathy and sympathy. She balances the need to be patient and judicious with the desire to get things done and work as hard as possible for the American people from the White House… Valerie is tapped in to people’s experiences, their good times and bad. …. Single mother, woman working to the top in a competitive male dominated world, African-American, working for change from the grassroots to big business…. Valerie is someone here who other people inside the building know they can trust. (need examples.)”

5.  Jarrett’s dual role as the first couple’s best friend and their adviser is not particularly unusual in White House history.

The only White House adviser who comes close, personally and professionally, to matching Jarrett’s influence with both the President and First Lady is the FDR administration’s Louis Howe. Unlike Jarrett, Howe lived in the White House, but by then his power as an adviser had waned. He remained extremely close to both Franklin and Eleanor until his death in 1936 before Roosevelt finished his first term. According to University of Chicago political science professor Charles Lipson, “[Jarrett’s] position in the White House is unprecedented. No one has ever been a best friend and top adviser.”

6.  On 1/20/17 Jarrett will hold the senior-adviser longevity record; she’ll turn off the lights in the White House and move on to another chapter in her life.

Jarrett will continue to harness her future to the Obamas’. Just as she helped with their transition to the White House, she’ll help with their transition out of it.  She’ll be a key player in every aspect of the Obama Library and Museum, from pushing for it to be located at the University of Chicago, where she has deep ties, to helping to choose an architect, to raising money, to articulating and polishing the details of Barack Obama’s legacy.

As Jodie Kantor told me,  “I don’t think Valerie’s ever leaving [the Obamas]. ….She has thrown her entire life into their cause, and she’s made it very clear that she would happily run in front of a speeding truck for them…. She has taken the president’s and First Lady’s success as the defining mission of her being.”

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