Features » July 22, 2013
Who’s Afraid of Valerie Jarrett?
Criticisms of Jarrett reveal gender and racial anxieties–and a rift in Democratic Party.
What she represents is what the future looks like, and where the Democratic Party, as well as the nation, is going.
Valerie Jarrett is, one could argue, the second most powerful person in Washington. How she rose to that position is no secret: Jarrett, a Chicago civic leader, has championed Barack Obama since they met in 1991. She introduced him to her professional network, she advised him on his career choices, and when as an Illinois State senator he successfully ran for U.S. Senate and then for president, she went to the mat for him, telling all who would listen why he was worth supporting, even when they had strong initial reservations. In turn, Obama has come to depend on her political opinion and judgment. “I trust her completely,” he has said.
After he was elected in 2008, Obama named Jarrett a “senior advisor.” As such, she travels with the president at will. And she is free to involve herself in and comment on all things.
So it is unsurprising that since she came to Washington, rivals for the president’s ear have slotted Jarrett into several archetypal roles—the Bad Boss, the Devoted Wife, the Ominous Foreigner—all of which seem designed, pretty explicitly, to avoid acknowledging that she might be very good at her job: advising Barack Obama.
But a dispassionate look at the record indicates that Jarrett has given the president some very valuable advice. President Obama is the first president in American history to take a stand in favor of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Jarrett is considered as the best White House ally of the gay community and a major force behind that decision. She is credited with “strongly encouraging” Obama, during the Jeremiah Wright brouhaha, to give his landmark 2008 campaign speech about race, and she worked personally with Michelle Obama on countering the racist “angry black woman” caricatures concocted by the GOP.
But then, Jarrett—by dint of her politics, her identity and her mere presence in the White House—was always going to be more than a simple advisor. She’s also a lightning rod for a fight that is ongoing within the Democratic Party between centrists and progressives. And, for that matter, between a simple, vaguely defined idea of progressivism as “little guys” vs. “fat cats” and a more nuanced, realistic understanding of race, class, gender and sexuality as intersecting factors in how power is constructed and shared.
The drive to delegitimize Jarrett speaks to some of the more profound fractures within the Democratic Party—and an ongoing battle about what the progressive movement stands for and where it is headed.
The Bad Boss
Jarrett’s role in the early advancement of Barack Obama is well known. Jarrett met Obama in 1991, when she hired his then-fiancée Michelle Robinson for a job at Chicago’s City Hall. Impressed by both of them, Jarrett worked to make sure that the right people shared that impression, connecting Obama to his early supporters.
Jarrett had a formidable network to tap. The scion of a prominent South Side family, she got her start in Chicago politics in 1987 as deputy corporation counsel for finance and development in Mayor Harold Washington’s administration. She then went on to work for Mayor Richard M. Daley, rising to the position of commissioner of planning and development. In that role she worked to revitalize the historic Bronzeville and other distressed neighborhoods as mixed income communities before running afoul, in 1995, of white real estate developers whose insider deals she had disrupted. Daley then appointed her to chair the Chicago Transit Authority—a position she held from 1995 to 2003, and where she fought to preserve transit service to the city’s minority-dominated South and West Sides.
From 1995 through 2008, Jarrett was vice president and then chief executive of Habitat Co., a Chicago-based real estate firm. In 1987, following the failure of the Chicago Housing Authority to build scattered-site public housing, a federal judge had made Habitat responsible for the construction of all new public housing in Chicago. Some public housing advocates credit Jarrett with preserving affordable housing in an era when there was political pressure for wholesale market-rate residential development on former public housing land. Other advocates say she could have stood up to the Daley administration in order to ensure that low income housing was a larger part of the mix in those same new developments.
As a political insider with extensive business connections, Jarrett was able to introduce Obama to many of his first donors. When he sought the Democratic nomination for President, she had the singularly thankless task of fundraising, particularly from Wall Street, and, once he won the nomination, of winning over Hillary Rodham Clinton’s supporters. When he was elected, he implored her to go with him to Washington.
So it’s a little shocking to see Jonathan Alter, in his new book The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, describe Jarrett’s White House appointment as being akin to “a CEO [making] his irritable and overprotective sister the head of marketing.”
Alter doubled down on this description in a recent appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball, insisting that Jarrett “would not be a good chief of staff” because “she’s not a well-liked figure,” and ultimately dismissing her as “a very close confidant [of the president] who probably shouldn’t have all these line responsibilities”—in other words, a pal of the president’s who was perfectly fine for personal conversations, but who shouldn’t play any role in running offices, making staffing decisions, or doing anything else that might affect the day-to-day realities of the White House.
Alter is best known as a connoisseur of personality politics. He made his professional name as the purveyor of conventional wisdom at Newsweek in 1988, when he and Mickey Kaus established “CW Watch” in the magazine’s “Periscope” section. Week in and week out, they glibly gave an arrow up or an arrow down to indicate whether a person’s political currency was on the rise or in decline in official Washington.
So it’s no surprise that Alter’s description of Jarrett is a stunning trivialization of a long, distinguished career. A 1978 Stanford graduate who went on to University of Michigan Law School and then became a respected Chicago official, a successful businesswoman and then policy advisor and professional mentor to the president of the whole damn United States is being written off as his cute little buddy—someone who, in Alter’s words, “probably shouldn’t have” the job she currently holds.
What emerges in Alter’s book—and in much of the coverage surrounding Jarrett—is a woman who is, indeed, “not well-liked” by some in the White House. The evidence Alter presents suggests, however, that this is due not to her own failings, but, in part, because her co-workers include people with insecurities as deep as their political ambition—people who are jealous of the fact that Obama listens to Jarrett and trusts her opinion. Each of Obama’s former chiefs of staff, Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley, battled with Jarrett for the ear of the president, and lost.
Such envy finds its expression in anecdotes about slights. Most of Jarrett’s grievous sins that Alter recounts are simply office politics at their most skull-numbingly petty. Everyone else makes their points in the meeting—but Jarrett talks to Obama afterward! Everyone else has to see him at work—but Jarrett gets to visit him at home! And one time, you won’t believe it: She criticized someone. In an e-mail. And then she called that someone “sweetie” in an e-mail, but she didn’t even mean it, gah.
Presidents have always brought trusted advisors into the White House with them. Emanuel made the transition into his White House along with Jarrett. Plenty of people dislike Emanuel, and more people mock him—this is a man who once mailed a dead fish to a colleague, with a note that read “it’s been awful working with you”—but no one questions his basic status as a political professional. Robert Gibbs once cursed out both Jarrett and the First Lady because he felt unappreciated; he’s been painted as a man who’s made poor decisions, but not as a bad or threatening man. Meanwhile, Jarrett’s mildly insensitive use of the word “sweetie” is portrayed as more unprofessional than a bouquet of dead halibut.
These tales of Jarrett-based woe reveal some of the oldest, most pernicious, most tiresome caricatures of female managers: the Ice Queen, the Ditzy Incompetent, the woman whose decisive leadership qualities get twisted into stories about mean e-mails and “bitchiness,” whose privileges of friendship and access are cited as reasons that she’s unqualified for the job. Given that quite a lot of people would no doubt like to be Barack Obama’s buddy, it makes sense that an actual close friend would be painted as an outsider who got the job through undeserved patronage—especially if that friend happens to be a black woman. Alter quotes one unnamed male CEO, who is unimpressed with Jarrett, grousing: “When we go to the White House, we talk to people we wouldn’t hire.” Indeed.
The Devoted Wife
This “unqualified favor hire” story is part of a larger trend. Jarrett’s influence on the president and her White House responsibilities are likewise dismissed when her critics—and the media—shoehorn her into the traditional role of the White House hostess who, when not entertaining, is there to provide emotional support to the president and his family.
Of all Jarrett’s White House responsibilities, the ones that Alter covers in most detail involve party planning. She controls invites, Alter writes, on “everything from state dinners to the small party for family and inner staff at the White House swimming pool on the 4th of July,” and also has the fearsome global power of selecting “what gift to give to a foreign leader.”
To portray Jarrett as a glorified personal assistant is to use her gender as a means of diminishing her seriousness. Alter glosses over the fact that she oversees the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, which serves as the liaison between the president and interest groups, and state and local elected officials. In this role she is the one top White House official who is in direct contact with “the people.”
Of course, it’s not unfair to say Jarrett is a close friend of the Obamas, or to suggest that they care about each other deeply. Jarrett herself has said that she “loves” the family, and the president has said, of Jarrett, “She’s like a sibling to me.”
But the mainstream coverage of Jarrett has taken that relatively restrained “sibling” and spun out an endless string of gendered and personal metaphors—doting mother, generous godmother, protective sister, kindly yet interfering aunt—that peaked in a 2008 Vogue profile by Jonathan Van Meter, who compared Jarrett’s relationship with the Obamas to that of a spouse:
She is actually married, if not to the Obamas themselves, then to their quest. Listening to her talk about how much she loves them is endearing, inspiring, and a tiny bit embarrassing: the same combination of feelings one experiences when listening to a close friend explain why they love their soul mate.
No matter how close Jarrett is to the Obamas, it’s hard to imagine, say, a profile of Karl Rove in which the interviewer concocted a fantasy about Rove dating both George W. and Laura Bush—nor, for that matter, has there been much steamy presidential fanfiction about David Axelrod, who virtually left his family for four years to be always available to the president.
This embarrassingly tone-deaf mainstream rhetoric has been adopted wholesale by a Right that portrays Jarrett as a Devouring Mother who has led Barack down the godless path of leftist politics. “She fills the emptiness at the core of his identity,” writes Karin McQuillan in 2012 on the right-wing blog American Thinker, “She shares his left-wing politics that project unfairness out onto white America.”
The Ominous Foreigner
To parse the confusion and fear aimed at Jarrett, consider which aspects of her identity people are reacting to. She is a black woman—often credited with providing a necessary perspective of color within Obama’s senior staff, which is still largely white. On top of that, she was born in Iran (her parents worked in Shiraz for a time), and her great-grandfather was Jewish.
This personal background has taken on a gruesome life within the conspiracy-prone Right. As early as August 2008, The American Spectator’s “The Prowler” column billed her as the “shadowy adviser and friend the Obama campaign would rather you not know about.” Since then the rhetoric surrounding her has become Tea Party fantasy: Black woman as eternal foreigner, anti-American, anti-white, anti-Christian secret Muslim and (hell, why not?) an ally, in her spare time, to a Jewish cabal.
One particularly bizarre blogger traces it all back to 1979, when Jarrett’s former father-in-law—the late journalist Vernon Jarrett—wrote an article about Middle Eastern nations funding black college students. It therefore follows that the educations of both Jarrett and Obama were entirely funded by Muslim cash, as part of a Middle Eastern plot to deploy each and every black person in America to ensure the creation of a Palestinian state. As evidence, this conspiracy theorist quotes Leon Trotsky, and observes, “Substitute the word ‘Islam’ for the words ‘the proletarian revolution,’ and you most clearly get the picture.” Sure, why not? In fact, if you substitute the word “dragons” for the words “Valerie Jarrett,” this entire article can become the long-awaited new installment of Game of Thrones!
To be sure, a measure of far-right hysteria around any powerful progressive of color is to be expected. Obama has been the target of similar rhetoric—and more of it, at a louder volume. But he also has his defenders. Most progressives can break down, in detail, how shameful it was that the president of the United States was bullied into showing the world his birth certificate.
Jarrett, on the other hand—as a woman, as an openly progressive woman, and as a woman in a position of power that is the envy of many Democrats both in and out of the White House—is not as well-defended, and the ugly accusations aimed at her from the Right are too often allowed to seep, unparsed and unchallenged, into the mainstream discourse.
The stretch from tinfoil-hat bloggers to Jonathan Alter seems like a long one, but the portrayal of Jarrett as the Obamas’ consigliere (the advisor to a mafia boss) has, more than once, been floated in mainstream coverage, including a description of her as such in a 2009 New York Times Magazine article.
Dark metaphors have also been not-so-subtly adopted and marketed by more than a few of those in the Obama administration who vie for power. Jarrett’s after-hours visits to the White House living quarters, famously, have earned her the nickname of “Night Stalker.” What this does is to strip away the unbecoming (and delegitimizing) details of the suspicion itself, and leaves an unsettled, seemingly apolitical feeling that she’s just…suspect, an intruder, someone who doesn’t rightly belong. A little different, you know?
Obama’s left-wing conscience
There’s a paradox at the core of Jarrett’s reputation: Half of the smears aimed at Jarrett trivialize her, portraying her as an unqualified, unprofessional Mommy Dearest who somehow got invited to the White House solely to hold the president’s hand. The other half are devoted to painting her as a figure of all-encompassing, malevolent power. When you consider that one accusation is often uttered in the same breath as the other, the logic becomes dizzying: She’s completely unqualified for political work, but runs the entire White House with an iron fist; she’s just a clingy girlfriend who stocks the gift baskets,, but actually she’s the power behind the throne.
Although hard data on the public policy decisions Jarrett has influenced is not easy to come by, Alter credits her with informing much of Obama’s policy on “issues related to women, minorities and the gay community.” According to a friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, she was instrumental in getting Obama behind the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which restored fair pay protections for women. She also convinced him to make immigration reform a priority and stood by his side when he battled the military establishment in pulling out of Iraq.
Jarrett is frequently described as Obama’s “left-wing conscience.” Robert Draper in a 2009 profile of Jarrett in the New York Times Magazine wrote that “several African-Americans who served at high levels in the Obama campaign” consider Jarrett “something of a heroine”:
As they saw it, she got that Obama’s work as a community organizer in poor black neighborhoods wasn’t just a touching bit of backstory but instead bespoke a personal commitment to change. She got the importance of campaigning for better schools and job opportunities for African-Americans, even if such talk wouldn’t make red states turn blue. She got that simply electing a black man would not make all urban traumas disappear. And she got that Obama got it, that this was central to his “authenticity” of which she was guardian—reminding the candidate, “Barack Obama wouldn’t say that.”
Jarrett’s clout isn’t universally appreciated. Draper wrote that Emanuel, then–White House chief of staff, “talks to a lot of people around town, and when the subject is Valerie Jarrett, it’s fair to say that his words fall short of effusive.” According to Draper, the two had different definitions of what it meant for Obama to succeed. Emanuel’s definitions were “straightforward” while Jarrett’s were “very focused on why he ran in the first place.” Similarly, Draper reported that consultant David Axelrod hosted weekly Wednesday-night political discussions at his house from which Jarrett was “pointedly excluded.”
It’s little wonder that Jarrett has become a target in a Democratic Party divided by two visions and two strategies about how to build a sustainable and winning future. On the one side is the Progressive Policy Institute (the successor to the DLC)/Bill Clinton/James Carville/Rahm Emanuel centrism, which sees the path to party victory as occupying space slightly to the left of the Republicans and therefore adopts its positions through polling data and focus groups.On the other is a more progressive wing that sees the party’s future as rooted in the issues of concern to women, workers, people of color, the young, the LGBT community, etc.
Obama won the presidency twice by energizing this progressive wing, and Jarrett played no small part.
The 2012 election swung, to an unprecedented degree, on issues of reproductive choice and access. Jarrett encouraged the president to face the issue head-on. One of the policy choices that she is credited with is the mandate for insurance to cover birth control, which Obama pushed through in the face of vehement Catholic and conservative opposition. It was a policy struggle in the White House, fought out between Jarrett and two prominent Catholics—Vice President Joe Biden and then-chief of staff Bill Daley.
One can see why her work might be regarded, by certain political factions with little interest in racial and gender justice, as less important or interesting than her role in planning the office pool parties. Or, for that matter, why some people believe she “probably shouldn’t have” even that much influence.
What she represents—whether or not she wants to (it’s hard to imagine someone volunteering for the position)—is what the future looks like, and where the Democratic Party, as well as the nation, is going. This makes her immensely powerful. And for those interested in steering the party away from a progressive future, there will always be a reason to portray a progressive woman with this much power as just some girl who tried to play with the real men and got in over her head.
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Sady Doyle is an In These Times staff writer. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady