"Ultimate Obama Insider" Valerie Jarrett Gets The Job Done

Illustration for article titled "Ultimate Obama Insider" Valerie Jarrett Gets The Job Done

This weekend's New York Times Magazine cover story is an in-depth profile of the awesomeness that is Valerie Jarrett, and the worst anyone can find to say about her is that she doesn't care whose toes she tramples on.


Of course, that's sort of her job — to serve the President, not the coddle the big egos of her mostly-white, mostly-male colleagues. And, by all accounts, she does a damn good job making sure Barack Obama hears the voices he ought to hear — including the ones who counsel him to think beyond the status-quo advice of the typical white, middle-aged male operative. It's probably unsurprising that there are people who consider her to have stepped on their toes, or that the people who feel that way are mostly white men.

The profile, written by Robert Draper, delves into Jarrett's early life of relative privilege and stifling realities.

The fast track laid out for Valerie Bowman - a Massachusetts boarding school, then Stanford, then a law degree at Michigan, then marriage and work at a corporate law firm - was one she pursued without either resistance or zeal, "kind of like an automaton," she told me. While Jarrett's family rejoiced when Harold Washington was elected mayor on April 22, 1983, the atmosphere at her nearly all-white firm the next day was one she would remember as "polite silence." Four years later, as a 25-year-old community organizer was wading into the tumult of her hometown, Jarrett, then 30, decided at last to reconnect herself to it. She quit both her marriage and her job, and in 1987, as the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, she went to work for Mayor Washington's corporation counsel - relinquishing her high-rise office for a cubicle in the city law department.But like the "sibling" she had yet to meet, Valerie Jarrett had found a path of her own.

It was in city government that Jarrett came to know and befriend the then-Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama, getting closer to the couple even as she experienced her own meteoric rise in Chicago business and social circles. And, then, her friend Barack decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Jarrett was skeptical.

"It was a lousy idea," Jarrett said as she recalled the decision by Obama, then a state senator, to run for U.S. Senate after he was trounced two years earlier in a bid for Congress. "He called and said: ‘I want to come over. Let's invite my closest friends. There's something I want to bounce off of you.'

"Well, Michelle had already told me what it was. She said, ‘So we're not in favor of this, right?' ‘Absolutely not!' ‘That's the right answer!' We conspired against it for all the obvious reasons.

But Barack convinced her, and she stuck by him, including when he asked her to join his campaign for the Presidency in 2007 at the advice of his finance chair, Penny Pritzker. Not everyone agreed. Obama's Senate chief of staff, Pete Rouse, wasn't keen on Jarrett's expansive role, and his campaign manager, David Plouffe, openly disliked her. So much for "No Drama Obama." David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel come across as decidedly cool to Jarrett, as does spokeman Robert Gibbs.

Why? Rahm Emanuel got steamed that she talked to the Bushie she was replacing before he talked to his counterpart. Plouffe and she "tangled" over campaign strategy, which he now says she "wasn't terribly involved in." Pete Rouse didn't like her wide portfolio. Axelrod focused on the strength of her personal relationship and advice to Obama over her job-related qualities — and pointedly doesn't invite her to his Wednesday "hard core politics" meetings at his house, which just sounds kind of dickish, if you ask me.


On the other hand, the piece is filled with Jarrett's champions, from the women on staff at the White House and the campaign (like Pritzker and Anita Dunn) to staffers of color, who felt that their advice about how to speak to minority communities was often ignored by the white dudes up front.

It was Jarrett who strongly encouraged Barack Obama to give his race speech - convinced when other senior advisers were not, says Dr. Eric Whitaker, a close friend of Obama, "that he could actually pull off the speech," and that in the wake of the incendiary Jeremiah Wright tapes, now was the time to do it. Numerous campaign officials credit Jarrett, along with the communications director Anita Dunn and Stephanie Cutter, Michelle Obama's chief of staff, for helping to rehabilitate Mrs. Obama's angry-black-woman image. (Three staff members say Jarrett encouraged the future first lady to focus on military families.) According to Clifford Franklin, one of the campaign's African-American media consultants, "Having Valerie at the table kept African-Americans and Hispanics and women at the forefront of our outreach - where before it had been an afterthought."


And there's more than simple encouragement, nonetheless recognized by some people who worked on the campaign.

"But within the campaign, Valerie had been saying, ‘You guys, you're not getting this issue right,' " recalls a top official. "And Obama communicated to his senior advisers that he thought we were a little gun-shy on race issues; that the reality was, he did look different. There were also African-Americans on our staff, some in relatively senior positions, who were clearly upset that we had not consulted them in the response. And she actually organized a meeting to discuss it.

"And that's not just a process thing," the adviser said. "Because moving forward, the candidate made it very clear to us that we were just a bunch of white people who didn't get it - which, by the way, was true."


This, in fact, is exactly what diversity is supposed to bring to a work force: a different way of looking at a set of issues that is not just helpful, but necessary.

Jarrett was also instrumental in organizing one of the more interesting photo ops and discussions of the Obama Administration to date, in which she brought together Al Sharpton, Newt Gingrich and Mike Bloomberg during the commemoration of Brown v. the Board of Education in the Oval Office. Other staffers thought the idea was amusing, while Jarrett and some of her supporters thought it was important.

When I talked earlier to Robert Gibbs about the gathering, he mentioned something that I now relayed to Jarrett: "If you would've started out a line by saying, ‘Reverend Sharpton, Newt Gingrich and Mayor Bloomberg walked into the White House together,' I would've thought it was the start of a joke." But the press secretary had also said, "I think it shows how important she thought that event was that it ultimately got on [Obama's] schedule." Of course, Gibbs wasn't exactly saying that he thought such a meeting was important - which, judging by the measured smile on her face, Jarrett seemed to understand.

Pressing the point anyway, I asked, "If you hadn't suggested that this meeting take place, do you think anyone else would have suggested it?"

Jarrett looked across the table at her friend, the White House communications director, Anita Dunn, who had dropped in on the interview. Dunn stopped taking notes and flashed Jarrett a look of abiding doubt.

"Probably not," Jarrett then murmured.

"Probably not?" exclaimed Dunn, who had been virtually silent until now. "Absolutely not!"


Dunn, as stated, is one of Jarrett's supporters in the White House (other than the Obamas, who could not have been more effusive in their praise of her to the Times Magazine reporter Robert Draper). And Draper heard much the same from other senior African-American campaign staffers.

Without Jarrett, these officials said they believed, their opinions and the often-legitimate concerns voiced by black leaders like Sharpton would have been thoroughly disregarded by the white-dominated senior staff. "There's a cultural nuance that they just didn't get," one such African-American staff member told me. "And the landscape of our campaign is littered with hundreds of stories where she intervened and voices got heard and decisions got made that might've gone a different way."


I think maybe Plouffe, Axelrod and Emanuel ought to worry a little less if Jarrett's got designs on their turf and a little more about whether listening to her will help them better serve the President.

The Ultimate Obama Insider [New York Times]



Jarrett sounds amazing, but it was incredibly frustrating to read about how much typical white dude bullshit she faced within Obama's campaign. At least to me, the reasons Plouffe, Axelrod, and Emmanuel dislike her sound flimsy, even ridiculous, and more like sexist backlash than legitimate complaints. It's getting harder and harder to think of the Democrats as the better ones, or even as the lesser of two evils.