Valerie Jarrett is the most powerful woman in the White House who is not married to the president.
She is one of three senior advisers—the other two are Pete Rouse and David Plouffe—but only she can claim close, personal relationships with both Barack and Michelle Obama that go back two decades.
“The length of their relationship has given her insight into what the president thinks is important, a window that is not matched by anyone else in the building,” said Tina Tchen, who serves as assistant to the president and chief of staff to the first lady.
The 55-year-old Jarrett, whose staff did not make her available for an interview, is part top aide and part older sister to the president, say insiders, and the bottom line is that she’s like family. That’s a bond that makes her judgment invaluable—but also makes her a target for criticism from inside and outside the White House. She has wrangled with former White House officials, including Rahm Emanuel, William Daley, and Robert Gibbs, and she is frequently blamed for the president’s curdled relationship with the business community.
Jarrett heads the White House offices of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement, serving as a liaison to elected officials across the country as well as advocates for labor, women, health care, and other grassroots causes. Jarrett is the one who puts the phone in the president’s hand, whether to reassure Gulf Coast governors after the oil spill or to make a condolence call to a former staff member. She is both the president’s conduit to the outside world and the gatekeeper who decides who gets into the Oval Office.
“In every situation I’ve ever seen her in, she is able to make herself indispensable by showing up at every meeting and being the first one there and the last one to leave,” said Susan Sher, Tchen’s predecessor in the White House, who has known Jarrett since they worked in the Chicago mayor’s office together in 1989. “She figures out in any given moment how she can be the most useful and gets it right.”
Her most recent role has been ambassador to women, voters crucial to the president’s reelection. Her staff arranges off-the-record dinners with female reporters covering the campaign. She headlined the kickoff of a “Women for Obama” event in Northern Virginia earlier this year, reminding the crowd that the president had been raised by a single mother and inspired by his hardworking grandmother. “More than anything else,” she said, Obama wants his two daughters to compete on an even playing field. He appointed women to top Cabinet posts, and the very first law he signed makes it easier for women to sue employers for equal pay. “He recognizes that women are not a special-interest group,” Jarrett told the hundreds of women who packed a campaign office in Falls Church, Va.
Jarrett is seen as the president’s liberal conscience and has played key roles in the debates over health care reform and insurance coverage for birth control.
In a White House in which officials are advised to “stay in their lane,” Jarrett commands perhaps the widest berth. “Because she has so much access to the president, he really counts on her to advise him on a wide portfolio of issues,” said Carol Browner, the former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change. “For Valerie, it is 24-7 about the president. That is her whole agenda.”