Politics & Policy

Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s ‘Berlin Wall’

(Olivier Douliery/Getty)
The woman insiders describe as the president’s “real chief of staff” keeps out bad news and new ideas.

It’s high time the news media paid more attention to Valerie Jarrett. An old Chicago friend of both Barack and Michelle Obama’s, she exercises unusual influence in the White House as a “senior adviser.” Many in Washington believe that she is at the heart of the disappointment the Obama administration has become. They are unwilling to say so in public. But the evidence keeps piling up.

One who is isn’t afraid to speak up is Steven Brill, the author of a searing new book analyzing American health care called “America’s Bitter Pill.” Brill is a liberal and still thinks that Obamacare should have been passed. But in his exhaustively researched book (he spoke with 243 people over a 27-month period), he slams “incompetence in the White House” for the catastrophic launch of Obamacare in 2013: “Never [has there] been a group of people who more incompetently launched something.” During an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” last week, he lay much of the blame at Jarrett’s doorstep. “The people in the administration who knew it was going wrong went to the president directly with memos, in person, to his chief of staff,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross. But “the president was protected, mostly by Valerie Jarrett, from doing anything.” Although Obama had no idea of the issues until they ultimately reared their head, he still bears the blame, Brill said. “At the end of the day, he’s responsible. . . . The president, whatever we can say about him on policy and on giving speeches, as a manager, he failed. He didn’t know what was going on in the single most important initiative of his administration.”

How important is Jarrett inside the Obama White House? Brill was able to interview the president about the struggles of Obamacare and reports that he concluded: “At this point, I am not so interested in Monday morning quarterbacking the past.” That must be one reason Jarrett is still at his side, in the same outsize role she’s held since both arrived in D.C. in January 2009. How outsize? Brill told the president that five of the highest-ranking Obama officials had told him that “as a practical matter . . . Jarrett was the real chief of staff on any issues that she wanted to weigh in on, and she jealously protected that position by making sure the president never gave anyone else too much power.” When Brill asked the president about these aides’ assessment of Jarrett, Obama “declined comment,” Brill wrote in his book. That, in and of itself, is an answer.

Brill isn’t the first liberal journalist to remark on Jarrett’s looming shadow. Jonathan Alter, author of a sympathetic book on Obama’s first term, reported this about Jarrett:

Staffers feared her, but didn’t like her 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, saying, “I don’t talk just to hear myself talking.”

After Obama’s inexplicable failure to note the rise of the Islamic State and to deal with problems involving veterans’ health care, I wrote last year that “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.” After my column appeared, I ran into a top aide to a Democratic senator. “You don’t know the half of it,” he told me. “[Jarrett is] not only Rasputin, she’s the Berlin Wall preventing us from even getting messages to the president.” The aide is convinced that the lack of communication between the then-Democratic Senate majority and the White House contributed to the GOP landslide takeover last November.

It’s an old Washington parlor game to blame the staff for the failings of an administration and pretend that if only an irritating staffer of the moment were removed, all would be well. The president himself is responsible for his slow response to crises, contradictory messages, and blatantly political calculations on issues.

But Jarrett isn’t any ordinary staffer. There are several things noteworthy about her. 1) Jarrett seems to be the only close Obama aide who entered the administration and is still there; 2) Jarrett has been highly successful in keeping new people with fresh ideas she doesn’t like from the president; and 3) she appears to suffer more than most staffers from a severe case of hero worship of her boss.

Consider what she told David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, in an interview for The Bridge, his 2010 book on Obama:

He knows exactly how smart he is. . . . I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. . . . So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but someone with extraordinary talents that they 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. He would never be satisfied with what ordinary people do.

As columnist George Will noted in astonishment: “Leave aside the question of whether someone so smitten can be in any meaningful sense an adviser. About what can such a paragon as Obama need advice?”

More and more people in Washington do have advice for Obama — on the conduct of his administration. No one I spoke to believes he will follow it, but they all agree that the organizational lines of authority at the White House need to be better observed, that there should be better communication with both parties on Capitol Hill, and that the decision-making process should involve more people and be less directed toward short-term political fixes (most of which haven’t worked). So far the Obama administration’s management style has guaranteed only one thing: The only long-term fixed presence in the Obama White House is Valerie Jarrett, the person who mentored the careers of both Barack and Michelle Obama a quarter of a century ago and who remains glued to their sides to this day.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO. 

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