Valerie Jarrett for the defense
By: Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei
January 18, 2013 04:42 AM EST
President Barack Obama, with a second-term team built for fight not compromise, has made it clear that he plans to change very little. No new faces in his innermost circle. No revolution in how he courts Congress. No new love for the permanent Washingtonians who feel a persistent chill from 1600 Pennsylvania. And so far, no new women in key positions in a West Wing some have long felt suffers from excess testosterone.
Many Obama insiders were embarrassed last week when the front page of The New York Times carried a photo, which had been released by the White House, showing Obama meeting in the Oval Office in December with 10 white men from his senior staff — with Valerie Jarrett’s leg, jutting from behind one of the guys, as the only sign of female input. Jarrett, in a 45-minute interview Thursday in the West Wing office that once belonged to Hillary Clinton and Karl Rove, argued that this was a case where “one picture really didn’t say a thousand words.”
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“The reality is that this president has been surrounded by strong women his entire life,” she said. “Early on, women who had not been a part of the campaign came and worked in the White House, and they don’t know the president. … What the president wants is for people to come in and fight for their ideas — not so that they win, but because he will make better decisions if they’re advocating and telling him what they think. … So, I say, ‘Speak up! Speak up!’ ”
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On her wall is a birthday gift from her boss – a frame containing the original petition to give women the vote in 1866, and the final resolution passed by Congress in 1919 – 53 years later. “Valerie,” Obama wrote. “You are carrying on a legacy of strong women making history! Happy Birthday, Barack Obama.”
Jarrett takes on the complaints of women who have worked in the West Wing head on, particularly the notion that you have to be able to shoot hoops, or play golf or talk shop or be a poker shark to gain the president’s confidence. “I don’t play golf. I don’t play basketball. I don’t really like cards,” she said. “I don’t think anybody questions whether or not I have a role to play here. And so I think it is irrelevant whether the president wants to do that in some of his free time. What’s really important is when we have something to say, does he listen to us? And he does.”
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Besides diversity, the other big rap on Obama’s senior staff is insularity. The president has taken the comfort-food approach to his second-term team, with promotions for guys who have been with him going back to the ’08 campaign, and many fewer departures than even his own staffers had expected. To those who think he needs change of his own, his message since the election has amounted to: “It’s not me — it’s you.” We read Jarrett an email from a former West Wing colleague who said: “They really just need new people. Everyone is so dead tired. They need new energy, new life, new ideas.”
“That’s from somebody who left?” Jarrett asked. “Well, they probably left because they were tired. I think the people who are left behind are energized. I don’t get the sense of fatigue at all. … So, it sounds like somebody who probably needed a rest, and there’s no harm in that. … These are hard jobs, and people do burn out.”
Her title is White House senior adviser, but it’s Jarrett’s 21-year friendship with the president and Michelle Obama that gives her more power than arguably any other aide in government. On paper, Jarrett’s portfolio includes the White House Office of Public Engagement; the Council on Women and Girls; and the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs, which works with local officials, mayors and governors. In reality, her clout stems from unlimited, almost mystical, access to the Obamas. Jarrett has been subject to extremely harsh press over the years and has rarely been asked bluntly about the slams. We ticked off several of them, and she didn’t flinch.
“Look, it’s a tough town,” she said. “Chicago is, too. I come from a tough town; this is a tough town. I’m always trying to improve. I think I take criticism constructively. I cannot erase a 21-year friendship, nor would I want to. And I try very hard to make sure that I am available to people here — particularly, I think, women often come to me. I am older than most of the people here, so I try to be a resource.”
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“I’m kind of old to change,” added Jarrett, 56. “But if somebody were to come to me and say, ‘You know what, Valerie? I think if you were to do this it would be more helpful,’ of course I would listen to that.”
Has anyone ever done that? She thought about it a second. “Actually not so much,” she said. “Not so much. But that [would be] very different than [an] anonymous quote in a profile. You know?”
There has been one clear change in Obamaworld since the president was resoundingly reelected on Nov. 6 and it comes from Jarrett’s cluster of issues. Business leaders in D.C. and New York, who felt this White House alternated between ignoring and alienating them, say they have been invited to the White House more in the past two months than they had in the past four years.
The White House says there has not been a single day post-election, including weekends, that Obama or his senior staff has not reached out to business leaders — in person, over the phone or via email. Obama has spoken to more than 50 CEOs, financial-services executives and small-business leaders since Election Day, and the White House has hosted meetings with 300 small-business owners from more than 30 states.
Jarrett was close to business in Chicago — chair of the Board of the Chicago Stock Exchange, and a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. But you’d never know that from the belly-aching by CEOs who are convinced her liberal leanings make her hostile to free markets, and to them.
“I don’t take it personally at all,” she said. “I don’t think it was ideological. … We have been more aggressive in our engagement, but I also think our country is in a different place than it was four years ago. Dodd-Frank was controversial. I think the banks obviously spent a lot of money lobbying against it. So that was a source of friction. I think if you were to leave it up to some folks, they might have said, ‘We will self-regulate. .. We understand we made a mistake — we get it now.’ … Because the stakes were so high and the bailout numbers were so great, what the president said is, ‘I’m just not willing to take that chance. I think the American people deserve better protection than that.’ So, I think that was a big source of tension.”
Now, she says, the administration has more of an “alignment of interest” with the business community. “We are now in a position where the president wants to really focus on a growth agenda which will create jobs, which requires us to invest strategically in ways that are going to be helpful for businesses to expand and hire people,” she said. “The business community very strongly agrees with us that one should not negotiate over the debt ceiling. … And if you look at our second-term agenda — whether it’s immigration reform or furthering our energy policies or investing in infrastructure, corporate tax reform — there are many issues where we are completely aligned with the business community, because it’s a growth agenda and they want to grow.”
Broad tax reform looks like it’ll be a victim of the three upcoming fiscal cliffs, and the breakdown in communication between House Republicans and the White House — a Murderer’s Row of political booby traps that mean the opening of Obama’s second term is likely to be the hundred days of hell. But Jarrett said reforming the corporate Tax Code remains important to the president, and she still hopes it’ll happen.
“I think that there is an interest on both sides of the aisle to do so,” she said. “A big part of our agenda is to position the United States for long-term sustainable growth and health, and those jobs come from the private sector. And so, we have to prime the pump in … It depends on our dance partner … the Republicans in Congress.”
But they WANT tax reform, we interjected. “Well, but do they want it in a balanced and fair way?” she said. “So that’s the question.”
Here’s something else that will change in the second term, and that the White House also telegraphed during the lame-duck session: Both Obama and Jarrett are going to spend more time traveling outside Washington, aiming to bring beyond-the-Beltway pressure on lawmakers. That’s part of the reason Jarrett, despite a clogged pipeline to Capitol Hill, predicts both gun control and immigration packages will pass this year. “That’s what the American people want,” she said. “So our goal is to engage them in that process and let their voices be heard, and I think ultimately when that happens, Congress acts.”
So the White House will be enlisting allies the president has met on his travels, and Cabinet secretaries and administration officials will be doing more community outreach as they travel. “If someone is going somewhere to give a speech, add on an opportunity to meet with some local leaders and tell them about our agenda,” she said. “He’s very confident that now, with the American people, with that wind at his back, there really are no limits to what we can accomplish.”
Obama will carry that message through in his second inaugural address, which she said will have “a very hopeful message” that emphasizes the vital role played by every citizen.
Jarrett says when her time in the West Wing is done, she expects she’ll go back to the Windy City. And what will Obama do in his post-presidency? “Spend a lot of time in Hawaii, I hope,” she said with a laugh.
The biggest change in Obama over the four years, she said, is the certitude of his decisions. Close aides say he has never been a hand-wringer and is even less so after the first term. “He still agonizes, but he is more confident because of his experience,” she said.
The greatest misperception about Obama, she said, is the appearance that he isn’t enjoying himself. “People shouldn’t confuse how serious he takes his job for how serious he takes himself,” she said. The two of them recently watched “Lincoln” in the family theater. Asked what she learned from the movie, she replied: “Change is always hard.”