The first two major speeches of President Obama’s second term have been widely viewed as exercises in exultation, victory laps for a hard-earned second act. They might also be viewed as the exaltation of one of Obama’s closest advisers, Valerie Jarrett.
Other inner-circle advisers have moved into outer orbits of Obamaworld, but Jarrett remains the constant—influential for both personal and policy reasons. And, with electoral considerations a thing of the past for Obama, Jarrett appears poised for a second term where her proximity to the president manifests itself more powerfully.
Already, Obama has signaled that his approach to governing, emphasizing take-it-to-the-people outreach over attempted closed-door talks with Congress, has shifted, and in a direction squarely toward Jarrett’s portfolio. A friend of the Obamas for more than 20 years, Jarrett has been entrusted as a top liaison to some of the constituencies most valuable to the administration: issue-by-issue interest groups on matters important to the base, to the business community, and to women. When Jarrett speaks, it’s a good bet the president’s own words won’t be too discordant. She is credited with being a meticulous deputy, able to brook disagreement—but only to a point where it doesn’t hobble the president.
If the White House is to rally various constituencies in the second term—and they will—they will likely fall under the operational bailiwick of Jarrett, whose formal title is assistant to the president for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs. Beyond the tactical, Obama, in both his Inaugural Address and the State of the Union, grasped for a concretely more progressive agenda, one aligned with Jarrett’s political leanings. On gun control, immigration reform, minimum wage, and other issues, the second term is far more an expression of the progressive id.
The trumpet blast of liberalism comes at a point in the White House personnel cycle where a cast of pragmatic, politically minded advisers has departed, many of them white males: Rahm Emanuel, Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina, William Daley, David Axelrod, David Plouffe. Jarrett, among others, remains and thrives.
“Her power’s pretty consistent and steady because it’s less about title and where you are in the org chart, and more about the president and his wife so clearly trusting her; and in an evolving shift of characters who come in and out from the campaign back to the White House, whatever, she’s a pretty steady presence,” said one lawyer who works closely with Jarrett’s Office of Public Engagement, and described being “snipped at for not getting something exactly precise” while working with her. “What makes the situation so unusual and opaque is that the actual power is derived from the president and his wife actually trusting her, and they do it in a plenary fashion.”
Jarrett and the first lady have a long-standing bond; she brought Michelle Obama into Chicago government. This week, Jarrett accompanied the first lady to Chicago for the funeral of a 15-year-old girl shot to death a little over a week after performing as a drum majorette at an inauguration event in Washington.
But as important as her relationships with the president and his wife are, Jarrett is also the liaison to the business community, which is not stocked with reflexive Obama allies.
It was business that battled Obama throughout his first term on health care expansion, Wall Street reforms, climate-change policies, and other issues. Jarrett herself told The Huffington Post that she found the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s resistance to Obama “somewhat old school.”
But in the wake of Obama’s reelection, amid the year-end negotiations over the fiscal cliff, business groups helped Democrats massage a revenue-raising deal into reality, including higher taxes on upper-income earners in those very same C-suites. “When it came around, and the business community was very symbiotic and engaged with the White House, and pushing back on the Republicans, you didn’t see the other side of that story,” said the lawyer who often collaborates with Jarrett’s office, arguing that the administration did not receive ample credit for wooing business. “She pointed it out to me: sort of the dog that didn’t bark.”
Jarrett will argue her case before the president until the decision breaks the other way, then line up with the team, one White House official said. And, when her aims align with another adviser’s before Obama, Jarrett will signal her encouragement. “It’s pretty clear that she knows him really well, that she knows what he’s thinking, what he’s going to say, and what he’s going to be annoyed by,” said a lobbyist, on condition of anonymity, who has been in meetings with Jarrett and Obama together.
For various reasons, Obama has floundered in direct negotiations with Congress. When the administration makes headway with lawmakers, credit on the executive side frequently goes to Vice President Joe Biden. And Obama has had success when he turns the process inside out, enlisting public pressure on student-loan rates, the 2011 payroll-tax cut, and, this year, on gun control. Because of Jarrett’s purview, and because of who she is in relation to the president, the expressly stated plan to continue that outside game will only expand her influence—if not inside a White House where she already wields significant clout, then at least in real-world application.
But there could be more to it than that. In the assertion of Obama’s progressive identity, perhaps there lies Jarrett’s own.
This article appears in the Feb. 16, 2013, edition of National Journal as Power Play.