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The Worst White House Aide

Valerie Jarrett’s perfect record . . . for giving bad advice.

Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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If for nothing else, Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas will be remembered for an anecdote from 2010. After he spent hours disputing an allegation in the French media that Michelle Obama thought life in the White House was “hell,” press secretary Robert Gibbs encountered senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. She told him the first lady was unhappy with his work. Gibbs exploded in a rage, informing Jarrett that she didn’t “know what the f— you’re talking about” and that if Mrs. Obama was displeased, well, “f— her too.” Subsequent relations between the senior adviser and press secretary were strained. Gibbs told Kantor he stopped taking Jarrett seriously “as an adviser to the president of the United States.”

Photo of Robert Gibbs, Valerie Jarrett, and President Obama at West Point

Robert Gibbs, Valerie Jarrett, and President Obama at West Point, December 2009

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It’s about time. Many have wondered—and the Washington Post asked last year—“What, exactly, does Valerie Jarrett do?” No one has a clear answer. Whatever she does, the U.S. taxpayer pays her $172,200 a year to do it. A confidante of the Obamas for more than two decades, variously described as the president’s “closest adviser” and a member of the “innermost ring” of influence, Jarrett clearly has the first couple’s ears. She seems to function as a sort of third party to the Obama marriage, guarding the president and his wife from bad news and outside influence while meeting with Lady Gaga. Her lack of any national political experience whatsoever—she had never been to Iowa before Obama competed there three years ago—has not prevented her from shaping the White House’s political strategy and influencing economic and foreign policies. One might liken her to Don Corleone’s consigliere Tom Hagen, bedecked in a designer shawl, except Hagen gave better advice.

What Valerie Jarrett does best is represent the Obama administration in microcosm. She embodies its insularity, its cronyism, its cluelessness. Born in Iran to a prominent African-American family from Chicago, she took degrees at Stanford and Michigan Law. She worked briefly as a corporate lawyer but hated every moment. So she decided to “give back,” which is Chicago code for cashing in. She campaigned for Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, and worked for him in the corporation counsel’s office. Washington died in 1987, but Jarrett remained in government, working for his successor, Mayor Richard M. “Richie” Daley, son of legendary boss Richard J. Daley. It was all upward from there.

Before long Jarrett stood at the intersection of private interest and public power. She became Daley’s deputy chief of staff and was later appointed to various boards and quasi-governmental agencies that award lucrative contracts—the Chicago Transit Board, the Commission for Planning and Development for the City of Chicago, the University of Chicago Medical Center, and so on. Her social standing, combined with her positions in government and her well-compensated seats on the boards of many companies, magnified Jarrett’s power. She knew everybody. Everybody wanted to know her.

In 1991, another disillusioned attorney, Michelle Robinson, applied for a job in Mayor Daley’s office. Jarrett interviewed her. The two women were instant friends. Before accepting the position, however, Robinson made an unusual request: Would Jarrett mind having dinner with her and her fiancé, Barack Obama? Jarrett accepted, and she has never been far from the couple since. 

President Obama, who grew up partly in Indonesia, seems to be drawn to Americans who have spent considerable time abroad, who feel askew in their native land. Jarrett told author David Remnick that the reason she bonded with Barack Obama was that “he and I shared a view of where the United States fit in the world, which is often different from the view people have who have not traveled outside the United States as young children.” Remnick goes on to write that Jarrett viewed America “as one country among many, rather than as the center of all wisdom and experience.” Sounds like the president, all right.

Jarrett was an early supporter of Obama’s political career. From her post at the nexus of Chicago business and politics, she was helpful in introducing the ambitious state senator to rich and well-connected figures. The association was not without embarrassment, however. Jarrett was an occasional collaborator with the developer Antoin Rezko, whose 2006 arrest for public corruption became a shallow pothole in Obama’s road to the White House. And Jarrett herself provided some bad headlines: In addition to her public burdens, she ran Habitat Co., which received taxpayer subsidies to manage low-income housing projects seemingly into the ground. The feds seized one complex in 2006; another, Grove Parc Plaza, was exposed as a decrepit slum by the Boston Globe in 2008. 

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