The Jarrett File
What we know about Obama’s secretive adviser.
By Andrew Stiles
In the fall of 2012, when New York Times reporter Jo Becker was working on a profile of longtime Obama confidante and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, the White House press office circulated a list of talking points to ensure that potential sources would be on the same page regarding “The Magic of Valerie.”
The memo, whose existence was first reported by Mark Leibovich in his bestseller This Town, described Jarrett as “an incredibly kind, caring and thoughtful person . . . the perfect combination of smart, savvy, and innovative,” with “an enormous capacity for both empathy and sympathy.”
The hyperbole is particularly rich in view of all the words that have been written about Jarrett’s role as “the single most influential person in the Obama White House” (which tend to paint a decidedly less flattering picture), and is perhaps more aptly captured by another talking point that appears to have slipped through the editing process: “Valerie is someone here who others inside the building know they can trust. (need examples.)”
Jarrett’s critics have no dearth of examples. She has been variously described by her critics within the Obama administration as the “Night Stalker,” on account of her general ruthlessness, as well as her tendency to follow the president into the White House residence after hours; “She Who Must Not Be Challenged”; and Obama’s “Rasputin.” Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who clashed often with Jarrett, likened her and senior aide Peter Rouse to Saddam Hussein’s maniacal sons, Uday and Qusay.
Over the past several years, a clearer picture of Jarrett’s role has emerged thanks to the plethora of books and articles published about the inner workings of the Obama White House. She is equal parts fangirl and enforcer, inspiring fear and envy in her (many) detractors, a true believer who was in on the ground floor of the Obama Cult and will be the last to leave.
Jarrett’s personal friendship with the president and first lady dates back more than two decades, before the couple was married, and before Barack Obama launched his political career in Chicago. The president has said he views her “like a sibling” and trusts her “completely.” As result, she enjoys “unlimited, almost mystical access” to the president, write Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, and is known as “The Keeper of the Essence,” the “defender, protector, and avenger” of all things Obama. She is always “mindful of being more than just an aide,” as one senior White House adviser told Leibovich. Former adviser David Axelrod, on the other hand, described Jarrett’s closeness to the president as a “manageable problem.”
Jarrett’s official job description is “somewhat vague,” Becker writes, noting that at least part of her role is to serve as “chief liaison to the business community, state and local governments, and the professional left,” but her influence is undeniable. She commands a staff of nearly three dozen and has a hand in decisions ranging from the invitation list to state dinners and what gifts to give foreign leaders, to who should be nominated to the Supreme Court, appointed to a vacant ambassadorship, or awarded the President Medal of Freedom. When Warren Buffett visits the White House for lunch, the table is set for three.
White House memos are littered with references to what “VJ thinks” or “VJ says.” When Standard & Poor’s downgraded the country’s credit rating in August 2011, she was among a select few invited to Camp David to discuss how to manage the fallout. She is “effectively the chief of staff,” in the words of one White House adviser, which likely explains her problematic relationships with actual chiefs of staff such as Emanuel and his successor Bill Daley, who did not appreciate the fact that Jarrett went behind his back (and Vice President Joe Biden’s) to help orchestrate the administration’s controversial contraception mandate, along with her “good friend,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Tellingly, despite presiding over one of the greatest political disasters in recent memory, Sebelius remains at her post, whereas Jarrett’s enemies rarely stick around for long. The White House reportedly went to great lengths last month to out a senior official — Jofi Joseph of the National Security Council — who had been operating an anonymous Twitter account, @natsecwonk, which was highly critical of the administration. Among Joseph’s offending tweets: “I’m a fan of Obama, but his continuing reliance and dependence upon a vacuous cipher like Valerie Jarrett concerns me.” Joseph was fired immediately after his identity was discovered in a sting operation coordinated by the White House and State Department.
Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas revealed a September 2010 clash between Jarrett and former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. When Jarrett informed him that Michelle Obama was not pleased with his work, Gibbs went ballistic, telling Jarrett she didn’t “know what the f*** you’re talking about,” and that if Mrs. Obama did not like it, “f*** her too.” Gibbs told Kantor that after the episode, he no long took Jarrett seriously “as an adviser to the president.” He left the White House six months later. Double Down authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann note that other senior staffers who witnessed the exchange were fairly certain that Gibbs “had just sealed his doom.” According to Leibovich, Jarrett exuded a “hint of smugness at having outlasted her detractors” during an interview earlier this year.
Bob Woodward writes in The Price of Politics about former Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag’s attempt to give Jarrett a heads-up about an October 2010 Bloomberg column he was writing that was critical of the president’s reluctance to take on medical-malpractice reform. After e-mailing a draft and asking for feedback, Orszag received a simple thanks from Jarrett. Orszag was understandably surprised when, after the column was published, he received an e-mail from Jarrett lambasting him for his disloyalty. She let it be known that Orszag had burned his bridges with the White House, in a tone that Woodward described as “Politburo finality.”
Jarrett considers herself someone who takes criticism “constructively” and is “low on drama,” just like her boss. In an interview with Esquire in April, Jarrett recalled being asked during a panel discussion whether it was more important to be respected or liked. “My view is you can actually be both,” she said, “if you add being decent.” Yet her critics in the White House have complained of living in fear of Jarrett’s scolding late-night phone calls, and being on the receiving end of her signature putdown: “You are hurting the president.” Obama biographer Jonathan Alter writes in The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies that Jarrett’s colleagues even fear being called “sweetie,” which is Jarrett’s subtle way of telling someone he or she is still in the doghouse.
Jarrett’s actual record as an “adviser,” or whatever you want to call it, is marred with blunders. In 2009 she boasted about how “delighted” she was to have recruited Van Jones for the position of White House “green czar.” Jones served only a few months before resigning amid allegations that he had dabbled in 9/11 Trutherism. She reportedly urged President Obama to personally address the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland on behalf of Chicago’s bid for the 2012 Summer Games, which was swiftly rejected. Jarrett also met with chief Solyndra investor George Kaiser at the White House, and despite warnings about the solar company’s failing financial health, signed off on a scheduled appearance by the president at Solyndra’s headquarters in California.
Many have questioned, in particular, the president’s decision to make Jarrett his official ambassador to the business community, which has had an uneasy relationship with the White House since Obama took office. In 2011, Jarrett took offense when Ivan Seidenberg, then CEO of Verizon and chair of the President’s Business Roundtable, remarked that he thought “the president has shown a willingness to learn,” intending it as a compliment. Jarrett slammed the “offensive” remarks in an e-mail to Motorola CEO Greg Brown and reportedly reached out to other members of the roundtable to make clear that Seidenberg had insulted the president.Larry Summers, former head of the National Economic Council, thought having Jarrett represent the White House was a mistake. Business leaders “felt patronized and offended by Valerie,” Summers told Woodward, largely due to her tendency to insist that she spoke for the president, and an approach to problem-solving that involved little more than scheduling multiple lunch meetings. One CEO complained to Alter that “when we go to the White House, we talk to people we wouldn’t hire.” Alter himself has likened Jarrett’s role in the White House to “the CEO putting his sister in charge of marketing.”
Ironically enough, Jarrett has considerably more experience as an executive than her boss. Before joining the Obama administration in 2009, Jarrett was president and chief executive officer of the Habitat Company, a Chicago real-estate firm founded by Daniel Levin, a major Democratic donor. Before that, she served three years as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development under Mayor Richard Daley, and served as chair of the Chicago Transit Board from 1995 to 2005.
Jarrett was able to parlay her position at Habitat, which during her tenure oversaw the development of some of the most notorious public-housing slums in the country, a number of which required federal intervention to salvage, into an 11 percent equity interest in Kingsbury Plaza (a luxury high-rise in downtown Chicago), which interest is valued between $1 million and $5 million. In 2009, Obama appointed Levin’s daughter, Fay Hartog Levin, ambassador to the Netherlands, a move that drew criticism from government-accountability activists.
Jarrett appears to be well versed in the transactional politics for which Chicago is known. The 2009 bestseller Game Change recounts an early meeting Obama had with Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) in which Reid urged the prospective candidate to run. Jarrett wanted to know what was in it for them. “Is he going to endorse you and support you?” she asked Obama, who said no. “So what good is it for him to tell you that you should run if he’s not going to help you?”
Jarrett got her start in politics in 1987 when she left her job at a prestigious law firm to become a legal staffer for Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. She described the transition — to “a cubicle . . . with a window facing an alley” — as “a little jarring,” but that felt that her devotion to the cause was such that “I can get used to this cubicle.”
By all accounts, she has since grown accustomed to the trappings of life as a senior adviser to the president, apparently being among the first Obama staffers to survey the West Wing for office space, much to the annoyance of Rahm Emanuel. (She was ultimately given Karl Rove’s old office.)
In June 2009, David Axelrod received a security detail after the FBI found evidence that the white-supremacist perpetrator of a fatal shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., had considered Axelrod a target. So was Jarrett, but the impetus was unclear. Aides suspected a simple case of “earpiece envy,” and even confronted Jarrett about the poor optics of the arrangement, but were politely rebuffed. In 2011, she famously tried to order a drink from a four-star general she mistook for a waiter, which presumably isn’t the kind of mistake made by your average cubicle dweller.
Richard Wolffe describes a scene in which Obama and Jarrett arrived via helicopter in Chicago for the president’s first visit home after the inauguration in 2009. Obama looked down at the bumper-to-bumper traffic generated by his arrival. “We shouldn’t have come here in rush hour,” Obama remarked, but Jarrett shot back: “You may not be enjoying your new life, but I am.”
Notwithstanding their two-decades-long friendship, it is easy to understand why President Obama insists on keeping Jarrett within his inner circle. She has described him as “just too talented to do what ordinary people do” and “the kind of person who, the day before the final exam, would open the book, read it, and get an A.” Next to the president himself, Obama has no greater fan; and judging from his latest poll numbers, he’s going to need all the flattering encouragement he can get.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.