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Washington Observes the Influence of Obama Adviser Valerie Jarrett

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

Obama's Consigliere

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.

"I know him well, so that that, I think, helps me advise him," Jarrett said. "He knows me well, so I think that strengthens our ability to work together. We have a relationship based in many years of trust and confidence."

That connection has made Jarrett among the most powerful people working for the president, a fact that is at times less than obvious.

"At meetings, she is one of these people who doesn't say much," said Susan Sher, a White House associate counsel who has been friends with Jarrett since they worked together at Chicago City Hall two decades ago. "But when she speaks, people listen, because it is likely she is expressing views that the president and first lady would be comfortable with."

Trim and tough-minded, Jarrett speaks in tones that lend a matter-of-fact air to almost whatever she says, according to friends. Like the president, she is known for an even temperament. On the rare occasion she is upset, her tendency is not to raise her voice, associates say, but to ask a series of simple, pointed questions aimed not at affixing blame but at fixing the problem.

Outsiders may at times underestimate Jarrett, but her influence is well understood by those who work at the White House. She has deep experience in a wide range of policy areas including housing, transportation and urban planning, but her power is derived less from her knowledge of any particular issue than from her keen understanding of the president's preferences and core sensibilities.

"She truly knows the person," Emanuel said of Jarrett. "Sometimes you got to make a lot of decisions that are judgment calls, and she can be there as a sounding board. She is a good gauge as how the president would want something to come down."

Overlapping Biographies

Jarrett's relationship with the Obamas was launched nearly 18 years ago, when she interviewed the future first lady -- then Michelle Robinson, a promising but discontented intellectual-property lawyer -- for a job at Chicago City Hall. Jarrett, then Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley's deputy chief of staff, was impressed, and she offered a job virtually on the spot. But Robinson would not take it until Jarrett met her fiance, Barack Obama.

Not long after that, the three went to dinner, where, largely at Obama's prompting, they talked about their backgrounds and values, which they found to be similar. "Valerie is someone I immediately connected with," the first lady said. "I really felt safe in her presence. She is someone that I trust implicitly."

As it happens, crucial elements of Jarrett's and the Obamas' biographies overlapped. Like the Obamas, Jarrett had lived in Hyde Park on the city's South Side. Like Mrs. Obama, she had soured on working in a private law firm to take a lower-paying job in public service, starting out in the administration of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor.

An unconventional childhood is another trait she shares with the president. She was born in Shiraz, Iran, where her father, a Howard University-trained geneticist and pathologist, worked as a doctor. Jarrett has said that when her family settled in Chicago, her background initially left her with no intuitive sense of the challenges she would face because she is black, as in Iran she was viewed only as an American. Only later did she full appreciate the burdens of race, an experience she shares with the president.

The common threads helped knit a bond between Jarrett and the Obamas, which only grew tighter over many dinners and family vacations. To this day, her parents live just two blocks from the Obamas' Hyde Park home. For years, Jarrett served as a mentor, helping Obama forge the connections that helped launch his political career, even as her own career flourished. Jarrett has served as Chicago planning commissioner and as president and chief executive of the Habitat Company, a Chicago real estate management firm. She also has sat on numerous boards, including that of the University of Chicago Medical Center, the Chicago Stock Exchange, the Chicago Transit Authority and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

"She is very much business, politics and friendship all woven into one," said Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary and a close friend of both Jarrett and the Obamas.

During the presidential campaign, Jarrett played much the role she does in the White House: all-purpose sounding board who focuses on having Obama listen to his inner self, while serving as his primary ambassador to outside groups. It was Jarrett who fielded and defused complaints from civil rights leaders about perceived slights in Obama's campaign speeches and explained how his plans would benefit their constituents.

"Every conversation we've had, I am convinced she is speaking on the president's behalf," said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau. "Clearly, she is very meticulous about clearly representing the positions of the president himself."

In her one brush with seeking to become a more public political figure, Jarrett narrowly escaped being pulled into a potentially embarrassing drama. After Obama's election, she was mentioned as possible replacement to fill his Senate seat in Illinois, pushed by Emanuel in a conversation with an aide to Rod Blagojevich (D) that was recorded by investigators preparing to indict the since-ousted governor. Prosecutors said Obama aides did nothing inappropriate in the episode, and in the end Jarrett withdrew from consideration and opted to work for the new president.

Jarrett, who was married for a short time to a doctor who died several years after their divorce, has one daughter, Laura, who attends Harvard Law School. In Washington, Jarrett lives in the same Georgetown apartment building as two of her best friends from Chicago: Sher and Rogers.

The close proximity to her good friends is useful in a life that is dominated by her job. Most mornings, Jarrett is up at 4:30. She tries to squeeze in some exercise, but before long she is off to the White House for meetings with the senior staff, members of her own staff and representatives of outside groups. More than occasionally, she accompanies the president to events, before returning to the White House for more meetings and, often, an evening event. Most nights, she returns home about 10. On weekends, she tries to catch a movie, do some reading or maybe go out to dinner.

Coming to Washington has transformed many aspects of her life. A civic fixture in Chicago, she is a virtual stranger in official Washington. "She is seen as being really influential and really unknown," Strautmanis said.

Her relationship with the Obamas also has been transformed. No longer is she the tutor; she is now working for them. While they remain close friends, Jarrett has to be careful to respect the boundaries that come with working for the president.

"There are many times that I see him that are not work-related," Jarrett said. "But if we're watching a movie, we're watching a movie. You have to be able to separate it. Downtime is very important for the president and the first lady, and so I think it would put a strain on the friendship if they thought that every time I was around them, we have to talk about work. So I think we have to both be able to go back and forth from being just friends to also having a professional relationship."

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