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Valerie Jarrett's Defenders Have Misunderstood My Profile of Her

Pete Souza/The White House/Corbis

One of the reasons I was keen to write a long profile of Valerie Jarrett is that she inspires so much speculation and debate—speculation about her role in the White House; debate about whether it’s helpful or harmful to the president. I thought that producing a definitive story on the subject might be a public service.

Alas, my story seems to have only added to the speculation and debate surrounding Jarrett. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for a magazine piece, but it does suggest the mission wasn’t entirely successful. So, herewith, a second attempt to set the record straight.

Among the most common reactions to my profile was: “Why is it a bad thing for the president to have someone so loyal to him in the White House?” Matt Yglesias made this point in Vox, arguing that presidents these days have two breeds of adviser—those who look out for the president’s personal views, and a broader group of party apparatchiks. “She's the person in the building who is supposed to represent Obama himself and his unique perspective on his own presidency,” he wrote. “That naturally pushes her into conflict with an array of other figures who represent a more generic version of a Democratic Party administration.” David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson came to a similar conclusion on Slate’s Gabfest.

I don’t disagree. In fact, it’s a key part of my thesis. Basically, I argued that Jarrett is the White House figure responsible for making sure that presidential decisions are consistent with “who the president is” on some fundamental level, and for protecting Obama from those who might corrupt his vision of his own presidency. I provided a handful of examples from the first few years of the administration—during financial reform, during the BP oil spill—in which Jarrett’s intervention served the president quite well.

Moreover, I argued that this didn’t necessarily make Jarrett a hopeless yes-woman, which is one of the most common knocks against her. Sure, there have been times she’s laid it on a little thick (as when Jarrett told Obama during the 2012 campaign that she couldn’t see how he wasn’t getting 85 percent of the vote). But there have been other times when Obama has acted in an un-Obama-like way, and it’s fallen to Jarrett to tell him he’d come up short (as during his initial comments on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates in 2009).

The catch—and this was really the key to my critique—is that having such a person in your inner circle only works when there are other strong voices to balance her out. It’s great to have someone weighing in on whether a particular decision is consistent with your personal philosophy. But sometimes your personal philosophy just isn’t very well suited to the moment. In that case, it helps to have people around who can say, “Mr. President, I know this takes you outside your comfort zone, but it’s what needs to be done now.” And the problem is that, as the years have gone by, the people who can say this to Obama have gradually left the White House, and they haven’t been replaced by others like them.

I didn’t include the following example in my piece because it seemed a little trivial, but it illuminates the point pretty cleanly. During the 2008 campaign, there was a period when Obama refused to wear an American flag pin on his lapel, dismissing it as tacky and stupid—something that trivialized his patriotism rather than exemplified it. But eventually some of his senior campaign aides convinced him this wasn’t the place to take a stand about the nature of our political discourse. “After that, he didn’t take it off,” says one former campaign adviser.

Unfortunately, this adviser continues, “There’s no one stand up to him on the flag pin now.” Certainly not Jarrett, who, true to her role, channels Obama’s disdain for the tacky side of politics. The adviser points to the round of golf Obama played in full public view after the ISIS beheading of an American citizen this summer. “He’s like, ‘Am I mourning if I’m playing tennis in the yard, but no one can see me? It’s stupid.’ He’s surrounded by people who say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ He’s not surrounded by someone who says, ‘Mr. President. It’s a fucking stupid idea. We’ll go golfing twice tomorrow.’”

A second class of response took issue with my characterization of Jarrett as heavy-handed and thin-skinned in her dealings with progressive activists, whose White House relationships she manages. One group of prominent progressive leaders took to the pages of the Huffington Post to proclaim that:

Valerie Jarrett is one of the most tireless, transparent, accountable and accessible public servants we've ever worked with. And, as leaders of some of the nation's largest advocacy organizations, we feel a moral obligation to tear down this half-baked caricature of one of the country's most powerful women.

If you’re not sure who to believe here, the first thing I’d recommend is that you read my piece, which is full of very specific examples of Jarrett behaving heavy-handedly, and which no one has refuted to my knowledge.

Beyond that, I’d make the following point: At the broadest level, there are two kinds of activists who interact with the White House on a regular basis. There are grassroots or single-issue groups, whose only ambition is to pressure the president on the issue they care most about. These are the sorts of activists Jarrett has sometimes had a hard time relating to. She chafes at their criticism and gets annoyed when they appeal to the press. Several of them made the Jarrett “shit list” I describe in my piece.

Then there are the large, well-funded, Washington-based groups—basically, the establishment—who certainly feel strongly about the causes they push, but who also care a lot about preserving their White House relationships. (This is both because their donors want to know that they have access to powerful people, and because they typically work on a number of issues, so it’s not worth alienating the White House over any one of them.) Generally speaking, Jarrett gets along pretty well with the leaders of these establishment groups, because they abide by the same behind-closed-doors rules she prizes. It’s not surprising that several leaders of these groups would have co-authored the HuffPo piece I quoted from above.

Having said that, Jarrett’s style is sometimes so heavy-handed, that she even alienates leaders of the establishment groups. One was Janet Murguia, the head of the National Council of La Raza, who was frozen out of a high-profile Rose Garden ceremony with the president after she had been critical of him. My piece describes the episode in detail. (Curiously, Murguia was one of the co-authors of the HuffPo piece, even though none of the half-dozen people I spoke with either in the White House or within the immigration reform community disputed the tension between the two sides.) 

Or, consider another example from my piece, a meeting between Jarrett and a handful of LGBT rights activists, during which Jarrett disclosed that the president wouldn’t be signing an anti-discrimination executive order that the groups had pressed for. Most of the groups at the meeting were in the establishment mold, and so Jarrett wasn’t crazy to think they’d take the news in stride, as some of them did. But others were pretty frustrated by Jarrett’s refusal to explain why the administration was punting, and with her feeble attempts to appease them.

For example, at one point Jarrett said the administration might conduct a study to figure out how the order would impact businesses. “I didn’t understand how a study of business around implementing policies most were already implementing would get us anywhere,” Joe Solmonese, who attended the meeting as president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), told me. He described the proposed study as “an insulting waste of time [because] an organization like HRC could serve up any evidence” you’d want. (In fairness, Solmonese also stipulated that he didn’t blame Jarrett for what was essentially a political decision. “Valerie is a completely honorable person,” he said.)

A final common response to the Jarrett profile took issue with my characterization of the worldview she and Obama share, which I described as “boardroom liberalism.” Some wondered how this was so different from other forms of liberalism, or even other forms of liberalism that are often ascribed to powerful people, like “limousine liberalism.”

The thing to keep in mind is that boardroom liberalism, in my telling, refers to both an ideology and a methodology. The ideology is mostly liberal—as I wrote, “It’s a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism… It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged.” The caveat is that it gives special weight to the views of powerful actors like corporations. The boardroom liberal is very excited about a mentoring program for inner-city youth; much less so about taxing corporations to pay for government-run mentoring programs. The boardroom liberal in Obama was keen to cut spending in order to lower the long-term deficit.

Even more important, though, is the methodological component. The boardroom liberal believes the way to solve problems is to sit down with other powerful people—say, corporate CEOs or congressional leaders—and hammer out a deal. Such a person is reluctant to take his case directly to the public so as to pressure his adversaries. As I wrote in my piece: “Except for a handful of moments over the last six years—like when the administration tried to pass a second stimulus bill known as the American Jobs Act—Obama has rarely tried to mobilize public opinion in any sustained fashion.” After Republicans took over the House in 1994, Bill Clinton tried to rally the public against them in pretty short order. Obama largely took the opposite approach, avoiding public fights so he could negotiate with Republicans in private.

Which brings us back to the first point: Obama has many talents, and I believe his values are fundamentally sound. But there have been many times in his presidency when the most Obama-like move was simply the wrong one—most obviously, when he’s tried to reason with a radicalized Republican Party that’s basically immune to reason. Unfortunately, Valerie Jarrett was never going to point this out. And, after the first few years of his administration, there weren’t other people around to make that case either.