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.”