Valerie Jarrett: No. 2 Woman in the White House

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

The framed, inscribed photo of President Obama on a table in her office says it all, more than any fancy title: "The best of friends . . . Thanks for always being there for us. Love, Barack."

Valerie Jarrett is not simply the highest-ranking woman serving in the White House these days. She has the kind of power that comes with long history and deep friendship, a voice in the room that confidently reflects her 20-year Chicago-based relationship with Barack and Michelle Obama. The Obamas ate their first family dinner outside of the White House at her Georgetown apartment, and there are ample photos in Jarrett's office of her daughter, Laura, a student at Harvard Law School, with the president.

"I think we have relied on each other at different points in our life," Jarrett said in an interview in her White House office last week.

Officially, her job is senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement. But sources say her reach is nearly immeasurable. In fact, Obama will often make his way to her West Wing office for a chat, and she regularly talks to the first lady. "To the degree people are looking for a barometer after all these years of knowing the two of them, hopefully I can give them that," she says.

The president calls himself a "night owl," but Jarrett, 52, says she wouldn't be first on his call list after hours: "If he calls me late at night, he's waking me up."

The hardest adjustment for the Obamas, she said, may be their loss of freedom: "He would probably say that walking through a bookstore and meeting that random stranger who you pick up a conversation with about something that you hadn't really thought about before is part of the richness of life, and he doesn't have the opportunity to do that as much anymore."

But she also mentioned that "the extraordinary part of being the president is being able to actually work where his family and his girls are right upstairs."

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Romano: There's a couple of comments that [Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor] has made that opponents are latching on to. One is "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with richness of experience would more often reach than not reach a better conclusion than a white male."

Jarrett: Well, I think what she meant was . . . that her unique experience having grown up so poor in this family from the South Bronx presents a diversity of opinion. I think . . . the spirit of her comment was one about diversity of perspective and enrichment of comment. And, goodness knows, I wouldn't want every single word I say micromanaged. And I think what the opponents are doing, they're trying to find that one little kernel they find that they can criticize.

Romano: There's a new book out that suggests that the president has been frustrated by Vice President Biden's lack of discipline and, in fact, defended you over a comment that . . . the vice president made.

Jarrett: What the vice president did was give me a supreme compliment. He said he thought I would make a wonderful U.S. senator. It's just that simple, and so, for anybody who said that he dissed me, not at all. I remember the moment, and I was supremely complimented by it.

Romano: So did the president say to him, "It's not funny," as has been reported?

Jarrett: I don't recall him saying that at all.

What I remember was basking at the thought that the vice president thought I would make a wonderful senator. So it was much ado about nothing at all. The vice president has been so incredibly supportive of me since the first time I met him, and I took it as a compliment, and he meant it as one.

Romano: Has your way of communicating with [the Obamas] changed at all? I mean, can you still pick up a phone if you have something to say, or have you had to measure that a little?

Jarrett: No. . . . But one thing I am sensitive to is the president's time. . . . His time is very precious, and so, you know, I am disciplined in how much of his time I take up when I am in his role as senior adviser. If I'm in his role as friend, well, then I'll talk his ear off.

Romano: I assume you have the e-mail address?

Jarrett: I do have the e-mail address.

Romano: So what's the protocol on talking to or getting in touch with the president on the BlackBerry? Do you have to wait till he writes you first?

Jarrett: Oh, no. It's just like you would talk to anybody on your BlackBerry.

But, again, you know, I'm not going to just write him idly on his BlackBerry. If I need to talk to him or I need his time and attention, I try to be judicious. That's what he should expect as president.

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