Nia-Malika Henderson is a reporter for The Fix, a Washington Post political blog.
Valerie Jarrett is the most talked-about White House aide in Washington — and that’s not always a good thing. Jarrett has come under attack after the midterm elections, with critics charging that she wields too much influence over her boss. Part of her mystique stems from the fact that, as other top aides have come and gone, Jarrett has survived. Her longevity and proximity to President Obama and Michelle Obama have made her something of a Beltway legend — and have conjured up a series of misconceptions about her.
1. Nobody knows what she does.
Jarrett has amassed a number of nicknames, most of them not so great: the spy, the chief sycophant, the night stalker, the Obama whisperer, the consigliere and the human decoder ring. It’s as if what she does is intangible and unknowable, either too subtle or too big to grasp. During the 2008 post-election transition, she insisted on having a defined portfolio in the White House, rather than being a nebulous senior adviser. Her official, oh-so-Washington title is “senior adviser to the president of the United States and assistant to the president for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs.” That’s a mouthful, but her role is actually pretty simple and in line with what William J. Baroody Jr. did for President Gerald Ford and Minyon Moore did for President Bill Clinton: She is a conduit to people outside the White House who want to be or should be on the administration’s radar.
This past week, when the White House released a 53-page report on the state of women and girls of color, Jarrett, in her capacity as head of the White House Council on Women and Girls, hosted a conference on the subject. When protesters in Ferguson, Mo., flooded the streets after the shooting of Michael Brown in August, she was in touch with officials there as part of constituent and government outreach. When business leaders, progressive activists, or state and local officials show up at the White House, they probably got there through Jarrett’s office.
Her work is both out front and behind the scenes — assuring, sometimes chastising and cajoling, and ultimately carrying the administration’s message.
2. She blocks Obama from making friends and hearing from different people.
Mitt Romney summed up this notion when he told the New York Times Magazine that a Republican leader had told him that Obama seems to answer to just two people: Jarrett and his wife. This is an obvious exaggeration, but it gets at the prevailing idea of Jarrett as enforcer of the Obama bubble. In addition, she reportedly said that there wouldn’t be any additions to the Obamas’ friendship circle once they moved to Washington. That does sound awfully cliquish.
But Jarrett has functioned as a social and political sherpa for the Obamas, in Chicago and in Washington, and in the business world as well. She is the president’s link to Vernon Jordan, a Washington fixture, and she introduced him to Wal-Mart chief executive Doug McMillon and Xerox chief executive Ursula Burns. And when former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker was in the outer circle of Obama’s economic team as head of an advisory board, it was Jarrett who made sure he got in to see the president.
None of this means that the Boehners, the McConnells and the Obamas go out for triple date night. But Jarrett has helped widen the Obamas’ circle — socially and among constituency groups as well. The main creator of the president’s bubble is Obama himself. He seems to prefer the company and counsel of a small group of friends, family and advisers.
3. Her influence in the White House is unprecedented.
She can’t be contained, critics from inside and outside the White House charge; so vast is her reach, she not only vacations with the first family but also sits in on foreign policy meetings with global leaders, perhaps taking up a seat that could go to someone more versed in the issues. And the conspiracy-crazed conservative blogosphere has her colluding with the Iranians and even waving off attempts to go after Osama bin Laden.
The truth is that Obama’s team of senior advisers, on everything from national security to campaign strategy, is varied, and the people in those roles have the president’s ear. Former defense secretary Robert Gates described in his memoir how, in the early Obama years, the president received input on national security matters from various sources: “The White House staff — including Chiefs of Staff Rahm Emanuel and then Bill Daley as well as such core political advisers as Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs — would have a role in national security decision making that I had not previously experienced (but which, I’m sure, had precedents).” Jarrett is part of a core group of people in decision-making and advisory positions. That’s what it means to be a senior adviser.
Complaints about presidential advisers have a long tradition. “In almost every presidency you can name a powerful White House figure who had informal power of one kind or another that was the subject of dispute,” said Kenneth Mack, a Harvard historian. “Sherman Adams had an immense amount of power in Eisenhower’s White House; same with Harry Hopkins and Franklin Roosevelt.”
4. She is a political neophyte.
Obama brought a team of Chicago insiders, including Jarrett, to the White House, and they were fairly new to the ways of Washington. Even Michelle Obama had spent little time in the capital when her husband was a senator.
Jarrett, who previously worked in city government and business, is usually not regarded as one of the political gurus who aided Obama’s rise and charted his course to the White House. But her political instincts should not be underestimated. Well before the Davids (Plouffe and Axelrod) came on the scene, there was Jarrett, who essentially discovered Obama when his future wife insisted that they all meet before she accepted a job offer from Jarrett. From there, Jarrett mentored both Obamas, believing early on that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could become president. Jarrett was one of the first to recognize Obama’s political gifts and appeal. And she knew how to capitalize on them: During the 2008 campaign, she didn’t have a formal role or portfolio, but, over the objections of other senior advisers, she urged Obama to make his famous race speech in Philadelphia, in the midst of the controversy surrounding his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. It was a smart and bold move, politically risky but ultimately very effective. More recently, her team has helped push — successfully — for state and local increases in the minimum wage, staking out territory in a debate that isn’t going away.
5. She has only two friends in the White House: Barack and Michelle.
No doubt, Jarrett is close to the president and first lady and is widely considered one of Obama’s best friends. And it’s no secret that former press secretary Gibbs and former chiefs of staff Emmanuel and Daley all clashed with Jarrett. But often anger and frustration at the president — whether within or outside the White House — has been redirected at Jarrett.
“Her position is that during the day she is staff, and at night she is a friend, and she clearly delineates between those two roles,” said Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director, who remains a close Jarrett friend. Among current senior staffers, Jarrett is closest to communications director Jennifer Palmieri, chief of staff Denis McDonough and counselor John Podesta, who has called the criticisms of her “sexist attacks.”
But her role extends beyond her relationship with the Obamas and other top advisers. To some, she operates as a fixer, hearing out their complaints and helping them navigate the White House. For others, she has been a mentor, and she has advocated for women and minorities in the White House, even taking the lead in organizing a monthly dinner with senior female staffers, who had concerns about inclusiveness.