Trying to figure out Valerie Jarrett’s mysterious hold on Barack and Michelle Obama is a favorite guessing game in the parlors and dining rooms of Washington. No other White House official in history has enjoyed such a unique relationship with both a president and a first lady, and yet the mainstream media have ignored Jarrett’s enormous influence over the shape and direction of the Obama administration.
Jarrett’s official title — senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement — doesn’t begin to do justice to her unrivaled status in the White House. She is Ground Zero in the Obama operation — the first couple’s first friend and consigliere, the last person to leave the Oval Office after meetings, and the only White House official who dines with the first family in their private quarters at night.
“Valerie is the quintessential insider,” one of her longtime friends told me during an interview for my book, The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House. “She functions as the eyes, ears, and nose of the president and first lady. She tells them who’s saying what about who, who’s loyal and who’s not. She advises them about who they should see when they visit a city or a foreign country. She determines who gets invited to the White House and who is left out in the cold.”
In the White House pecking order, Jarrett has more clout than the president’s chief of staff. During the savage internecine warfare between Jarrett and Obama’s first two chiefs of staff — Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley — Obama sided most of the time with Jarrett, a classic limousine liberal who believes that Obama was elected president in order to engineer social change. Ultimately, Jarrett emasculated Emanuel and Daley and forced them from their jobs.
She has also been responsible for much of the incompetence and amateurism that have been the hallmarks of Obama’s time in office. Indeed, Jarrett has been on the wrong side of practically every consequential issue to come across the president’s desk. Some examples of her bonehead advice:
● Though both Emanuel and political strategist David Axelrod warned Obama time and again that he didn’t have the votes to ram a comprehensive healthcare bill through Congress, Jarrett was among those who persuaded the president to ignore their advice and go for broke. The result: the hugely expensive, unworkable, unpopular, and probably unconstitutional program known as Obamacare.
● Emanuel tangled with Jarrett over her effort to put the prestige of the presidency behind Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Emanuel believed that Jarrett was working on behalf of her old boss, Mayor Daley, and his political cronies, who stood to benefit from the billions of dollars that would be spent on the Olympics. That idea seemed to be lost on the president, who went to Copenhagen to make an impassioned plea for the Olympics, and came back home with egg on his face.
● Jarrett gave her stamp of approval for the $535 million taxpayer-funded loan guarantee to Solyndra, the California solar company that went belly up. Jarrett had close ties to the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which controlled 35.7 percent of Solyndra. The foundation had made a sizable donation to the University of Chicago Medical Center, where Jarrett once served as chairwoman and where one of Obama’s best friends, Eric Whitaker, is currently executive vice president.
● When Jarrett pushed Obama’s proposal to require church-run hospitals and universities to give their employees free contraception, chief of staff Bill Daley secretly arranged an Oval Office meeting between the president and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, who argued that the policy violated the principle of religious freedom. When Jarrett learned about Daley’s end-run, she went to the president and vented her anger. After that, Daley realized his days were numbered and resigned.
● Like Obama, Jarrett has a fundamental lack of respect for businessmen. In a typical blunder that sent shudders through the business community, she dismissed Tom Donohue, the highly regarded CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as irrelevant, saying that she preferred to deal with “real” industry executives.
● Jarrett’s lack of judgment in domestic affairs has been matched by her inexperience in international and military affairs. She urged the president not to send in a Navy SEAL team to get Osama bin Laden — the one time that we know of when Obama failed to take Jarrett’s advice.
If Jarrett is wrong so often, why does President Obama trust her above all others and continue to run every decision by her?
In part, her influence stems from the fact that Jarrett is the president’s trusted watchdog. She protects the vainglorious and thin-skinned Obama from critics and complainers who might deflate his ego. No one gets past Jarrett and sees the president if they have a grievance, or a chip on their shoulder, or even an incompatible point of view. That goes for such high-profile supporters as Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy, who have been largely frozen out of the White House because Jarrett believes they would use the opportunity of a meeting with Obama to push their own competing agenda.
Despite her impeccable social credentials, Jarrett’s record before she went to Washington was spotty at best. After Mayor Daley made her commissioner of planning, she became embroiled in a massive screw-up in the city’s public housing revitalization plan, which cost Chicago millions of dollars in overruns. Daley fired her without explanation.
After she left city hall, Jarrett became CEO of Habitat Executive Services, where she earned $300,000 in salary and $550,000 in deferred compensation. She managed a federally subsidized housing complex that was seized by the government after inspectors found crime-infested slum conditions and widespread blight.
Throughout her career, Jarrett has failed upward. Today she is at the pinnacle of power as Michelle Obama’s closest confidant and Barack Obama’s political soul mate. Though she is the White House official responsible for “public engagement,” she has conspicuously failed to engage. I heard this complaint about Jarrett from practically everyone I interviewed — Republicans and Democrats, African Americans and Jews. They all blamed Jarrett for keeping the president isolated even from those whose good opinion he needed the most.
Despite her lack of international experience and background in economics and fiscal policy, she is in many ways the de facto president. Against the advice of more seasoned advisers, Jarrett steers the president toward decisions that make our economy less robust and our nation less safe.
“I was at a dinner where Valerie sat at our table for ten minutes, and I wasn’t particularly impressed,” a major Obama donor told me. “She didn’t say anything interesting. I expected her to be smarter. She ain’t no Karl Rove. Karl Rove would eat her for breakfast.”
Edward Klein, author of The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House, is a New York Times bestselling author of numerous books including The Truth About Hillary. He is the former foreign editor of Newsweek, former editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine, and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.