Valerie Jarrett’s latest role: Shoring up Obama’s support base

October 25, 2011

Valerie Jarrett plays a lot of roles. She is the president’s closest personal adviser, the first couple’s first friend and the chief liaison for the White House. She has also, for many of the administration’s discouraged supporters, embodied Obama’s cold shoulder.

But now, like her boss, she’s warming up.

“Part of what we have to do is be better messengers,” Jarrett, told an audience at the White House on Thursday. She added that the administration is eager to “engage and have a conversation” and that it is “open to good suggestions from wherever they come.”

For all those overtures, the new openness has failed to quell a frequent — and caustic — question about VJ, as she is known in the West Wing:

What, exactly, does Valerie Jarrett do?

In recent months, the answer is more. More meetings. More appearances. More listening. And more engagement.

Jarrett’s new approach reflects the transition in the president’s own campaign posture from talk-to-the-hand to wide-open arms. But the success of Obama’s outreach will depend a lot on whether disillusioned supporters accept his inscrutable insider as an effective envoy to the outside world.

Current and former senior administration officials describe Jarrett in 10,000-feet terms. She is “close to omniscient,” said one, and presides over an expansive portfolio. “She has a broader view,” former communications director Anita Dunn said.

A closer look yields a more contradictory picture.

The high-fashion aide carries the high-octane title “White House senior adviser” and is a barometer for how Obama and his wife will react to events. Except she has no operational expertise and it’s unclear exactly how she advises the president.

As the head of the Office of Public Engagement, she serves as the administration’s contact to local governments, constituency groups and the business community. Except that critics have accused the administration of failing to engage.

Jarrett organized a grievance-airing dinner in 2009 with the president and frustrated women in the administration. Except many women’s advocates outside the administration find her inaccessible.

She provides the president and Michelle Obama with intelligence on staff squabbles. Except that staff squabbles, especially with former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, have often centered on Jarrett herself.

And while administration officials argue that Jarrett’s unique stature has allowed her to stand in for the president and make calls to executives during the auto bailouts, or governors during the gulf oil spill, it is that very prominence that has made Jarrett such a big target.

Disgruntled Obama donors in the financial industry, reluctant to take their ire out on the president, 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 who, like many others, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of angering the White House. “I’ve talked to people in the White House about it, and they have agreed with me, but they are scared to say anything.”

Another influential Obama bundler said that after telling Jarrett that the business community felt under attack by the president, she responded, “They don’t realize how much we did for them; we are protecting them from themselves.”

“If the goal is to assuage people,” the donor pointed out, “that’s probably not how you do it.”

And the liaison to a top-tier donor said that appeals to Jarrett for a meeting between the donor and Obama on an issue of public policy prompted a surprisingly brusque blowing off.

“He’s busy,” Jarrett told the handler.

A prominent member of the abortion rights community, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of further harming relations with Jarrett’s office, said there was initially great hope that Jarrett would act as their messenger to the president. But whereas they have discovered that senior adviser David Plouffe is motivated by the electoral map and Obama campaign manager Jim Messina is motivated by avoiding political headaches, no one is quite sure what motivates Jarrett. As a result, the advocate said, many in the abortion rights community have discounted her.

Past occupants of Jarrett’s office argued that special-interest grumbling was nothing new, but that critics nevertheless deserved an earnest hearing.

Minyon Moore, who oversaw outreach in the Clinton administration, recalled a time when a supporter publicly criticized Clinton only a day after the president went to great lengths to speak at his event.

“Obviously you get your back up,” said Moore. “But the president’s response was ‘Let’s deal with this. He’s our friend, and if he’s saying it, then we might have a problem here.’ Everybody has their own journey and how they want to do it. The president [Clinton] was the kind of person for whom constituencies mattered.”

Since Obama’s numbers have taken a dive this year, constituencies started mattering more to this president, too. And, perhaps not coincidentally, Jarrett has become more available.

“My experiences have been markedly different, very positive,” Rick Jacobs, founder of the Courage Campaign, an advocacy organization with an emphasis on gay issues, said about recent interactions with Jarrett’s office. He discounted the notion that an effort to court gay donors explained Jarrett’s uptick in activity, especially on the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But he could provide no reason for her change.

“It’s a good question to ask her,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”

In an acknowledgment that the administration needs to do a better job of disseminating its message to the base, Jon Carson, who had worked as the Obama campaign’s field organizer, joined Jarrett’s office in January as operational director. He has organized Thursday evening listening sessions with myriad constituencies for Jarrett, and a few months ago sought advice from Maria Echaveste, another Clinton outreach official.

Echaveste said it was key to understand that sometimes supporters needed to go public in their criticism, and that the office shouldn’t hold that against them. “It’s counterproductive to have enemies,” Echaveste said.

This summer, Jarrett met with Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has had years of strained relations with the White House. “It’s important that this is the first time that we had any kind of communication,” he said.

A chorus of supporters has been singing the praises of Jarrett’s recent outreach — at least in conversations monitored by the White House. Administration officials, mayors, activists and CEOs called Jarrett “effective,” “compassionate,” “engaged,” “consistent” and “caring.”

“She makes you feel that you are part of a team,” said Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, adding that Jarrett’s office put together a call with Obama in which mayors offered input on the president’s American Jobs Act.

But this month, Nutter, a leading voice for gun control, circulated a petition calling on the White House to fight the loosening of laws against concealed handguns, an issue the administration has all but abandoned. Asked whether he had discussed this with Jarrett, Nutter mentioned vague conversations about Jarrett “coordinating” talks, before adding, “I haven’t asked for a whole lot on that particular point.”

The White House staunchly defended Jarrett.

“Their complaints may tell you something about how they see the world,” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said of the Wall Street critics. “But they don’t tell you anything about Valerie. She is smart, tough and sensible and doesn’t pretend to be the arbiter of all things for the financial sector.”

Communications director Dan Pfeiffer says that Jarrett’s job is not congressional relations and that the critiques are a form of “shooting the messenger.” Others said that she had provided stability in the West Wing and a constant reminder to the president of his core beliefs. She championed his decision to tackle health-care reform before jobs, for example, because, she argued, he was a historic president sent to do big things. And officials said that when some White House strategists argued to take the base for granted as they chased independent voters and the middle class, Jarrett persuaded the president to be more mindful of his key constituencies.

Pete Rouse, a counselor to the president, pointed out that Obama now includes a line in his jobs pitch about making the middle class accessible to the bottom rungs of society.

“She has a lot to do with that,” he said.

And yet, during the torturous negotiations with Republicans this year, Jarrett agreed with the White House strategy of pursuing cuts to programs supportive of society’s bottom rung to prove the president’s deficit-hawk bona ­fides.

“She was,” Rouse said, “very much with the program.”

It’s not surprising then that Obama’s base remains wary of Jarrett, uncertain of her authenticity and influence. The White House has apparently calculated that more exposure, and more assertions of openness, will solve the problem.

At the end of a September event with African American bloggers, Jarrett took the podium after the president dropped by to pitch his jobs program.

“Well that was nice surprise, wasn’t it?” Jarrett said, although no one on the panel seemed particularly surprised. “When the president heard you were here,” she added, “he said, ‘Another important audience for me to go and deliver my message to.’ ”

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