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.”
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.
The Chicago method was on full display after Obama defeated John McCain, when functionaries from across the state of Illinois lobbied for the president-elect’s now vacant Senate seat. Evidence released at the trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich reveals that Jarrett, who has never been elected to anything, wanted to replace her protégé in the Senate. This was something incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was only too happy to make happen, since he had no desire for Jarrett to join the Obamas at the White House. But the president-elect overruled both advisers. He wanted Jarrett by his side. Later she became mistrustful of Emanuel when she learned that he had tried to sideline her.
The feeling was mutual. One of Obama’s more flowery hagiographers, journalist Richard Wolffe, divides the administration into “revivalists,” who want the president to be true to the spirit of hope and change, and “survivalists,” who believe compromise is necessary in a divided country. Jarrett is the leader of the revivalists, and her fingerprints are on every blunder and boo-boo the White House has ever made. She bragged to a conference of leftwing bloggers that she had hired noted environmentalist and 9/11 Truther Van Jones, later forced to resign. She campaigned extensively for Obama to travel to Copenhagen and make the case for holding the 2016 summer games in Chicago before the International Olympic Committee. Obama took the trip; the IOC chose Rio. During this time Jarrett met with George Kaiser, the Obama bundler and investor whose solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra was up for a huge loan guarantee. Jarrett, according to government documents, was warned about Solyndra’s shaky finances on the eve of the president’s visit to the company’s facility in Fremont, California. Obama went anyway.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the president tends to side with the revivalists because they feed his ego. Jarrett’s descriptions of Obama are adoring. “I knew the unique combination of leadership qualities that Barack has would push him to greatness,” she told Richard Wolffe. “They always have. Barack has this kind of a—what’s the way to describe it?—restless spirit.” Obama, she told Remnick, has “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 other people do.” Fed a constant diet of words like these, is it any wonder Obama decided to press on with his health care overhaul after Scott Brown won in Massachusetts, refused any meaningful compromise with Republicans during last summer’s debt ceiling fight, and insisted on giving one “major” address after another even though they have done nothing to advance his agenda or salvage his underwater approval rating?
The House is lost, Obama’s reelection looks dicey, but Jarrett is flying high. In one sense she is the most successful Obama courtier of them all: She has outlasted her rivals. Gibbs is gone. Internal clashes led to Emanuel’s sudden discovery that he had always wanted to be mayor of Chicago. Emanuel’s replacement, fellow Chicagoan Bill Daley (brother of Richie), was muscled out last week; word is he fought with Jarrett too. Her persistence is matched only by her tone-deafness. Wolffe describes the president’s first visit to Chicago after his inauguration. From the window of his helicopter Obama could see that his arrival had caused a major traffic jam. “We shouldn’t have come here in rush hour,” he reflected. This was too much for Jarrett. “You know what, Mr. President?” she said. “You may not be enjoying your new life, but I am.”
Better enjoy it while it lasts—which won’t be for long if Obama continues to listen to his inept political fixer.
Matthew Continetti is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and editor of the Washington Free Beacon.