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Sunday, March 15, 2009
The nation's mayors felt left out in the weeks after President Obama's election. He had met with the governors, but not them. Then, to their surprise, he picked a non-mayor to head his new office of urban affairs. The unhappiness only grew as the president's economic stimulus package promised to funnel billions of dollars directly into the coffers of states, leaving mayors wondering about their role.
As the frustration mounted, some began grumbling about their White House contact, Valerie Jarrett. "They were starting to get the sense, starting to comment that maybe Valerie Jarrett isn't the person to bring their concerns to the highest level of the White House," said Michael Strautmanis, Jarrett's chief of staff.
They soon learned otherwise.
Before long, Jarrett hosted a forum for more than 80 mayors in the White House East Room, where she moderated a discussion with five Cabinet secretaries who explained how the stimulus plan would help cities. The event last month was capped by remarks from both the vice president and the president. Spotting a once-skeptical mayor after the session, Strautmanis could not resist flicking a little jab. "What do you think of Valerie Jarrett now?" he asked.
Jarrett, 52, serves as senior adviser to the president, and she oversees the Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs. She is the principal contact for groups wanting to reach the White House, a stated focus of an administration that prides itself on transparency and outreach to an unprecedented array of grass-roots organizations. Jarrett and her staff have organized meetings and events that bring 450 people a week to the White House. She also recommends and interviews people for top jobs in the administration, is a daily presence in the president's senior staff meetings, and is someone Obama often calls on for a reality check.
But Jarrett's array of titles and duties fail to convey the breadth of her influence, which is rooted in a long relationship built on a foundation of trust with the Obamas.
"First, you look to her judgment and instincts about people," said first lady Michelle Obama, describing Jarrett's attributes. "You want to know, 'What do you think? What's your read?' The other part for me is knowledge of the president. She knows her boss. She knows his values. She knows his intent. She provides a very trusted link to the outside community. People who deal with her can trust that, number one, she has access, and also, that she has knowledge."
In an administration brimming with hard-charging achievers, Jarrett's challenge will be overcoming the kind of skepticism she faced from the mayors. She has little experience in national politics, is a newcomer to the capital, and has a personality that tends toward the low-key. Obama's West Wing has been built on a foundation of old Washington hands such as Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and counsel Gregory B. Craig, who have established deep connections across government. Confidants such as David Axelrod earned Obama's trust through the grueling campaigns that brought him to office.
Jarrett's ability to navigate the big personalities and even bigger egos in the administration will go a long way toward determining her success, and perhaps the president's, in trying to change the tone of civic discourse and foster more grass-roots influence in Washington.
"Everything is pushing you toward the status quo. There are a thousand reasons why you can't change," Jarrett said, during an interview in her sunny and spacious office on the second floor of the West Wing. "And he keeps saying we are here to change things."
If the impatient and brash Emanuel, renowned for his profane asides and encyclopedic knowledge of Congress, is the president's enforcer, then the incisive and soothing Jarrett is Obama's consigliere.
When Obama's presidential campaign was being overwhelmed by questions about the racially inflammatory sermons of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Jarrett urged Obama to confront the question of race directly. It was a risk, not least of all because Obama had mostly sidestepped the issue throughout the campaign. In the end, Obama delivered a speech about his faith in the country's ability to rise above its tortured racial history that some analysts credit with saving his campaign.