Two things are guaranteed to inspire envy or hatred in Washington: access to the president and the power to turn that access into action. The person who has both is guaranteed to face a torrent of criticism, deserved or not. His or her role and value are negatively questioned. And those leveling the harsh critique do so after losing numerous battles and after they have left the White House with the offending person still in place. In the Obama administration, no one is more envied or hated because of her access and willingness to use the power that goes with it than Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama.
Jarrett oversees the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and the Office of Public Engagement and is tasked with building and managing the administration’s relationships with state and local officials and a wide variety of advocacy groups. Jarrett is a sounding board and go-to person for the array of groups with which she meets. She is an early warning system for the president. She is the bearer of bad news when he opts to go in a different direction. And she is unafraid to play the enforcer when folks run afoul of her or Obama. Jarrett’s title and duties are a bit squishy and diffuse in a town that likes clear lines of authority. But, as a Democratic strategist told me, the folks saying they have no idea what Jarrett does “know exactly what her job is. That’s why they’re upset.”
A particularly nasty piece in Politico magazine calls on Obama to “Fire Valerie Jarrett.” The writer, Carol Felsenthal, declares, “Her undefined role combined with what by all accounts has been almost unlimited proximity to the Obamas has proved a bad mix.” Noam Scheiber of the New Republic also took a critical eye to Jarrett’s performance in a piece that hit the Web last night. His is a fairer look at her tenure because it recognizes that “Jarrett’s role is far more textured” than the popular narrative against her. And it is reminiscent of the profile of Jarrett written by Jo Becker of the New York Times in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.
Becker’s characterization of the relationship between Jarrett and Obama remains the most accurate portrayal of that dynamic I have read.
Some of his boldest moves, on women’s issues, gay rights and immigration, have been in areas she cares about most. If Karl Rove was known as George W. Bush’s political brain, Ms. Jarrett is Mr. Obama’s spine.
Scheiber gets at this in his profile, as well.
Jarrett’s job may be nothing less than to reflect the most authentic version of Barack Obama back at himself. “My speculation has always been, when you are any president or Democratic nominee, at the pinnacle of American political power, you are necessarily surrounded by layer and layer of bureaucracy,” says a former White House aide. “You’re completely disconnected. For someone to come to you and say, ‘I am going to be the person who is your connection to the real you’ … is very attractive.”
To be the president’s spine, to be his connection to the real him requires one to know him at his core before he catapulted to the top of the political order. Jarrett has known the Obamas for more than 20 years and helped put the former community organizer on a path that would eventually lead to the Oval Office. And once inside, Jarrett has used her power in the way countless others have. “You know she’s speaking for the president, more so than anyone else on the staff,” a trade association leader told Scheiber, who aptly describes Jarrett as “our connection to the real Barack Obama.”
As Scheiber and Becker pointed out, her maneuverings got the president to hear and eventually adopt financial reforms advocated by former Fed Chair Paul Volcker and Bill Donaldson, the former chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Felsenthal slammed Jarrett for not only pushing for Eric Holder to get the attorney general job but also for standing by him when things got tough. Good for Jarrett. Like Jarrett, Holder has had his problems, but there’s no denying he has been an excellent chief law enforcement officer. Like Jarrett, Holder has outlasted many of his critics. He will leave “just as [his] stock is rising in the West Wing,” according to Glenn Thrush in a late-summer profile of Holder for Politico magazine. And Jarrett has been a behind-the-scenes force on gay rights. David Axelrod, then Obama’s chief strategist, told Becker that Jarrett “reinforced [Obama’s] instincts” on same-sex marriage.
The one difference between Jarrett and others who have wielded the same kind of power in the West Wing is that she is a woman. Were she a man, her job would not be subject to endless “What does he really do?” questions. Were she a man, she wouldn’t be called “the night stalker” for walking with her longtime friend back to the private residence. Were she a man, her willingness to use her elbows to do what she thinks is right for the president would be applauded. Nancy Reagan, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton are just some of the women whose proximity to power and their willingness to use it has had critics reduce them to shrews (or other sexist descriptors) who should know their place.
By no means am I saying that Jarrett has done her job perfectly or without missteps. As a rule, perfection is a stranger in any White House. But when it comes to representing the president, providing him counsel, being a truth-teller with the way-back cred to tell him what others might be too afraid to and being unflinchingly loyal (sometimes even to a fault), Jarrett is in exactly the right job. Man or woman, if Jarrett were not the object of ire, someone else with her access and power would be. That’s just the way Washington works.
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