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Valerie Jarrett: The real center of Obama's inner circle

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The capital is abuzz this week over who would be the new White House chief of staff if Rahm Emanuel goes home to Chicago to pursue his mayoral dream.

While that's an interesting question (the likely answer, at least on an interim basis, is longtime Hill staffer Pete Rouse, now a White House adviser), it doesn't tell you where the real power would be in the West Wing. It would reside upstairs from the Oval Office, in the second-floor quarters of Valerie Jarrett.

The departure of Emanuel and economic adviser Larry Summers, to be followed in the spring by the exit of David Axelrod, would leave Jarrett, Obama's longtime mentor and friend, in a position of unparalleled influence over the president -- for better or worse.

Certainly, Jarrett fills an important role for Obama: She has deep and personal ties to the president, as well as undivided loyalties, and can talk honestly to him on a first-name basis. But current and former White House officials I spoke with raised questions about Jarrett's effectiveness and judgment.

As the senior adviser in charge of "public engagement," she has been the White House official responsible for maintaining relationships with the business community and with liberal interest groups -- two of the most conspicuous areas of failure for the White House during Obama's first two years.

She's also the one who arranged the hiring of social secretary Desiree Rogers, only to cut her friend loose when Rogers was tarnished by the party-crashing Salahis at a state dinner in November.

With the absence of Emanuel, Jarrett's primary rival, and Axelrod, Obama's other staff confidant, her ability to exert her influence in any matter of her choosing would go largely unchecked.

Already, Jarrett has used her direct line to the president to shape decisions. Consider the recent hiring of Harvard's Elizabeth Warren as the White House official in charge of setting up the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. Emanuel and others had opposed the appointment on grounds that Warren is difficult to work with and politically radioactive. But Jarrett, arguing for the need for more senior women in the White House, got Obama to overrule Warren's detractors. "Elizabeth Warren is in the administration because of Valerie," one of those involved in the appointment told me.

Jarrett made a similar intervention months earlier, when some senior White House officials were losing confidence in Attorney General Eric Holder. His job appeared to be in jeopardy over the decision to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammad on trial in New York, but Jarrett made sure that Holder, a friend, would remain in good standing.

Obviously, Obama believes the advice he is getting from Jarrett is good. And, without a doubt, she has been a useful sounding board for him. She is a lonely exception to the boys' club that surrounds Obama in the West Wing. After the president got some unwanted PR for an all-male basketball game with his aides, he conferred with Jarrett and decided to set up a dinner with the senior women on his staff. While other aides head off to make money, write books or run for office, Jarrett can be expected to stay on the job for the duration.

But this comes at a price for Obama. Administration officials talk of resentment they feel toward Jarrett for acting as if she is the only one who has the president's best interests at heart. Jarrett flaunts her friendship with the president and first lady; she has vacationed with them on Martha's Vineyard and in Hawaii. "When I'm out of the office and I'm just being his friend, I call him Barack," she told the ladies of ABC's "The View" this month, "but when I'm in the office I call him Mr. President." She has also, colleagues complain, accompanied "Barack" on multiple foreign trips, an unusual role for a White House official with Jarrett's domestic portfolio.

Jarrett laughed when asked by Barbara Walters whether she would become chief of staff.

"I love my job," Jarrett protested. "I would like to just do what I'm doing."

So she wouldn't take the job if offered it?

"I want to do what I'm doing," she said. "I don't want to change jobs."

And who can blame her? Power without responsibility is a heady thing.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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