Politics & Policy

Obama’s Éminence Grise

Valerie Jarrett with President Obama, December 2013. (White House via Flickr)
As the Obama administration crashes and burns, insiders begin to blame Valerie Jarrett.

Are significant chunks of the mainstream media in despair over Barack Obama? This past week, Obama used 60 Minutes to attempt to shift blame for the failure to anticipate the rise of ISIS, endured a cover-up of White House security disasters by the Secret Service, and saw a government-agency report that he had skipped nearly 60 percent of his intelligence briefings. 

The reaction from some longtime Obama defenders was swift and harsh. “President Obama this week committed professional suicide,” wrote former CNN host Piers Morgan, now an editor-at-large for Britain’s Daily Mail.

He called Obama’s throwing of the intelligence community under the bus a “shameless, reprehensible display of buck-passing” that will result in some analysts’ exacting “cold-blooded revenge on Obama by drip-feeding negative stories about him until he’s gone.” As for the Secret Service fiasco, Morgan said it was “no wonder the Secret Service gets complacent when The Boss exudes complacency from every pore.”

Chris Matthews of MSNBC, the former White House speechwriter who once rapturously recounted that he “felt this thrill going up my leg” as Obama spoke, didn’t hold back on Wednesday’s Hardball. “Let’s get tough here,” Matthews began, as he lambasted Obama for being “intellectually lazy” and “listening to the same voices all the time.” He even named names, saying that Obama had become “atrophied into that little world of people like Valerie Jarrett and Mrs. Obama.”

Jonathan Alter, a columnist for Bloomberg News and the author of a sympathetic book on Obama’s first term, reported that Jarrett is an unusual presence in the White House: “Staffers feared her, but didn’t like or trust her. At meetings she said little or nothing, instead lingering afterwards to express her views directly to the President, creating anxiety for her underlings and insulting them by saying, ‘I don’t talk just to hear myself talking.’”

Everyone expects a presidential spouse to weigh in on issues, but the reference to Valerie Jarrett, the White House senior adviser who mentored both the president and the first lady at the start of their careers in Chicago, is telling. Her outsize role in many presidential decisions is known to insiders, but she remains resolutely behind the scenes. So when Jarrett does enter the news, it’s significant, because it may provide a window into how the Obama White House really works. 

This week, Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business noted that President Obama was back visiting Chicago but “having to share headlines with Valerie Jarrett.” She began the week with a cameo appearance on CBS’s highly rated show The Good Wife. Then a column by Michael Sneed in the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Jarrett “may be the worst abuser” of any executive-branch official with a Secret Service detail, using guards “round the clock” even while she was shopping, at the gym, or visiting friends in Chicago.

At a time when a government report shows the Secret Service is more than 550 agents below its optimal strength, Sneed bluntly asked, “Is this expense justifiable or is it an abuse of power?” Sneed quoted a source close to the White House: “Jarrett is treated as a member of the Obama family, but she’s had no real death threats requiring the constant use of the Secret Service that I know of.”

When Mark Leibovich of the New York Times tried to trace how Jarrett obtained Secret Service protection, he was told by someone close to her that she found such questions “ridiculous and offensive.”

Hinz of Chicago Business has covered Jarrett for years and has decided to offer her some quick advice: “Do whatever it takes to get your name out of the papers. And just watch TV for a while. OK?” He then joked that if Jarrett really wanted “to have some fun, try to figure out who dropped the dime on you.” 

I wouldn’t bet against Jarrett finding out. As I wrote last year, White House aides “went to extraordinary lengths to uncover the identity of a senior official who was using Twitter to make snarky comments about Jarrett and other White House staffers. . . . The official had gone so far as to tweet ‘I’m a fan of Obama, but his continuing reliance and dependence upon a vacuous cipher like Valerie Jarrett concerns me.’”

When the bloodhounds uncovered Jofi Joseph, the point man on nuclear nonproliferation at the National Security Council, as the offending official, he was fired — not for revealing any secrets but for making disparaging comments about thin-skinned administration players such as Jarrett.

On Capitol Hill, members of both parties are more and more mystified at Obama’s apparent disengagement from parts of his job. Months before he dropped the ball on ISIS, he failed to keep himself properly apprised of the problems with Obamacare’s website. Jarrett appears to exercise such extraordinary influence that in some quarters on Capitol Hill she is known as “Rasputin,” a reference to the mystical monk who held sway over Russia’s Czar Nicholas as he increasingly lost touch with reality during World War I.

No one suggests that Jarrett is solely responsible for the administration’s slow response to the crises, contradictory communication, and labored political calculation that have become its hallmarks. But many do think that she has failed to encourage the president to bring in new people with fresh ideas. 

So how has she survived? Not only has she been close to the first couple for nearly a quarter-century, but she clearly makes the president feel even better about himself than he would anyway. Consider this quote from her interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick for his book The Bridge (2010):

I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. . . . He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. . . . So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. . . . He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.

Journalists who contacted the White House this week and asked to speak with Jarrett didn’t get very far. Maybe she’s decided to follow the advice of Greg Hinz and lie low for a while. But if journalists really want a fuller explanation for how the Obama administration has reached its current low ebb, perhaps they should continue to follow the threads of the Jarrett string that were revealed this week and see where those lead.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.


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