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. Jarrett received one as well, although 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.
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.