Saturday, January 24, 2015
The Obama Whisperer No one has understood Valerie Jarrett's role, until now
Even at this late date in the Obama presidency, there is no surer way to elicit paranoid whispers or armchair psychoanalysis from Democrats than to mention the name Valerie Jarrett. Party operatives, administration officials—they are shocked by her sheer longevity and marvel at her influence. When I asked a longtime source who left the Obama White House years ago for his impressions of Jarrett, he confessed that he was too fearful to speak with me, even off the record.
This is not as irrational as it sounds. Obama has said he consults Jarrett on every major decision, something current and former aides corroborate. “Her role since she has been at the White House is one of the broadest and most expansive roles that I think has ever existed in the West Wing,” says Anita Dunn, Obama’s former communications director. Broader, even, than the role of running the West Wing. This summer, the call to send Attorney General Eric Holder on a risky visit to Ferguson, Missouri, was made by exactly three people: Holder himself, the president, and Jarrett, who were vacationing together on Martha’s Vineyard. When I asked Holder if Denis McDonough, the chief of staff, was part of the conversation, he thought for a moment and said, “He was not there.” (Holder hastened to add that “someone had spoken to him.”)
Jarrett holds a key vote on Cabinet picks (she opposed Larry Summers at Treasury and was among the first Obama aides to come around on Hillary Clinton at State) and has an outsize say on ambassadorships and judgeships. She helps determine who gets invited to the First Lady’s Box for the State of the Union, who attends state dinners and bill-signing ceremonies, and who sits where at any of the above. She has placed friends and former employees in important positions across the administration—“you can be my person over there,” is a common refrain.
And Jarrett has been known to enjoy the perks of high office herself. When administration aides plan “bilats,” the term of art for meetings of two countries’ top officials, they realize that whatever size meeting they negotiate—nine by nine, eight by eight, etc.—our side will typically include one less foreign policy hand, because Jarrett has a standing seat at any table that includes the president.
Not surprisingly, all this influence has won Jarrett legions of detractors. They complain that she has too much control over who sees the president. That she skews his decision-making with her after-hours visits. That she is an incorrigible yes-woman. That she has, in effect, become the chief architect of his very prominent and occasionally suffocating bubble.
There is an element of truth to this critique. While aboard Air Force One at the end of the 2012 campaign, Jarrett turned to Obama and told him, “Mr. President, I don’t understand how you’re not getting eighty-five percent of the vote.” The other Obama aides in the cabin looked around in disbelief before concluding that she’d been earnest.
Still, Jarrett’s role is far more textured than this narrative would suggest. She has served as a teller of hard truths, urging Obama to clean up his initial remarks about Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates’s arrest in 2009, which, she worried, sounded disrespectful to police. She is an all-wise interpreter of the president’s thoughts. When the White House began taking flak for its man-cave sensibilities, senior officials consulted Jarrett to figure out where Obama stood. “The White House counsel Greg Craig stopped by,” recalls a former Jarrett aide. “He was like, ‘Hey, is the president worried about this?’” (He was.) Jarrett even plays the role of advance dining scout for the Obamas, locating restaurants discreet and exacting enough to serve the first family. (Fiola Mare in Georgetown has become a standby.)
So adept is Jarrett at catering to the president’s needs that Michelle Obama has, at least on one occasion, chafed at the portrayal of their relationship. Late in the 2008 campaign, Vogue published a long profile of Jarrett titled “Barack’s Rock.” According to a senior campaign aide, Michelle sniffed about the magazine bestowing a title that she considered hers.
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.”
And Jarrett is, in turn, our connection to the real Barack Obama. A decade after his ascent, there is still a basic unknowability about him, a puzzling gap between his talents and the public’s enthusiasm for his years in office. No wonder Jarrett inspires such fevered theorizing. She is the closest we have to a human decoder ring—the only person who can solve the mystery of why this president has left so many feeling so unfulfilled.