WASHINGTON — For the first time, White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett on Wednesday publicly discussed whether she uses her unique relationship with President Barack Obama to do an end-run around other key staffers to influence decisions because of her extraordinary access.
For the past five years, that has been a narrative about Jarrett finding its way into the articles and books written about the Obama White House. The stories started early in the first term, touching on friction with then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who tried to steer her into taking the Illinois U.S. Senate seat Obama vacated instead of a White House position.
The latest was as recent as Tuesday, in a New York Times story about the Obama presidential library, describing Jarrett as an “undisputed Obama whisperer.”
Jarrett was asked about her role while being interviewed at Politico’s “Morning Money Breakfast Briefing.”
For those who don’t know — or who need a refresher course in Obama history — Jarrett has a singular position in the Obama orbit. In the early 1990s, the well-connected Jarrett opened doors for Obama when he was a non-player and pulled him into important Chicago’s political and fundraising circles. She put him on the path that took him to the Illinois Senate, the U.S. Senate and the White House.
Jarrett met Obama in 1991, when she interviewed his then-fiancee, Michelle Robinson, for a job in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s City Hall.
Jarrett — who first hired on under the late Mayor Harold Washington — was Daley’s deputy chief of staff. Jarrett offered Robinson a job but first had to pass muster at a dinner with the couple because Obama initially was lukewarm about his future wife taking a job in Daley’s City Hall.
No one in the Obama inner circle has any history that intimate and long with both Obama and first lady Michelle. Jarrett is a family friend who spent much of her youth growing up a block north of the Obama home on South Greenwood. Jarrett has vacationed for years with the first couple, socializes with them in the White House residence, knows their daughters and yes, works for the boss, wearing several hats.
Jarrett’s roles at the White House transcend her titles or an organization chart.
“There have been stories written from time to time suggesting you play sort of a shadow-chief-of-staff role,” Politico’s Ben White told Jarrett, in setting up his question. “And that decisions can get made during the course of the day that then get reversed in some way after you’ve gone and spoken to the president in the residence at night.”
“… Could you speak to this idea that you are somehow the shadow chief of staff?”
“I’m not the shadow chief of staff,” Jarrett said, picking up the language of her questioner. “I have very specific responsibilities,” she said.
Jarrett said she oversees the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and chairs the White House Council of Women and Girls.
The controversy is really over her broader role as trusted senior adviser where she is by Obama’s side for all sorts of issues, domestic and international. She often makes overseas trips with Obama; the latest to South Africa last week for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.
Addressing that, Jarrett said, “I think what people somehow presume, because I am a friend of the president and first lady — I’ve known them now for 22 years, I think it is — but we do compartmentalize. I assure you, when he goes home to the residence, he is really not interested in talking about his job.
“… I think there is this perception that somehow I might be trying to lobby for positions, but that is just not what we do in our free time.”
On the matter of the Obama presidential library, I reported in July that close pal Marty Nesbitt, a Chicago business executive, and Julianna Smoot, who was a deputy chief of the 2012 re-election campaign, are preparing the groundwork for a presidential library and museum foundation.
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco has the Obama post-presidential portfolio, with Jarrett part of the small group dealing with Obama’s future after the White House.
Obama “is not raising any money for it whatsoever, nor will he do that while he is in office,” Jarrett said.
The Obama library foundation is expected to be created early next year.