By Noam Scheiber @noamscheiber
Even at this late date in the Obama presidency, there is no surer way to elicit paranoid whispers or armchair psychoanalysis from Democrats than to mention the name Valerie Jarrett. Party operatives, administration officials—they are shocked by her sheer longevity and marvel at her influence. When I asked a longtime source who left the Obama White House years ago for his impressions of Jarrett, he confessed that he was too fearful to speak with me, even off the record.
This is not as irrational as it sounds. Obama has said he consults Jarrett on every major decision, something current and former aides corroborate. “Her role since she has been at the White House is one of the broadest and most expansive roles that I think has ever existed in the West Wing,” says Anita Dunn, Obama’s former communications director. Broader, even, than the role of running the West Wing. This summer, the call to send Attorney General Eric Holder on a risky visit to Ferguson, Missouri, was made by exactly three people: Holder himself, the president, and Jarrett, who were vacationing together on Martha’s Vineyard. When I asked Holder if Denis McDonough, the chief of staff, was part of the conversation, he thought for a moment and said, “He was not there.” (Holder hastened to add that “someone had spoken to him.”)
Jarrett holds a key vote on Cabinet picks (she opposed Larry Summers at Treasury and was among the first Obama aides to come around on Hillary Clinton at State) and has an outsize say on ambassadorships and judgeships. She helps determine who gets invited to the First Lady’s Box for the State of the Union, who attends state dinners and bill-signing ceremonies, and who sits where at any of the above. She has placed friends and former employees in important positions across the administration—“you can be my person over there,” is a common refrain.
And Jarrett has been known to enjoy the perks of high office herself. When administration aides plan “bilats,” the term of art for meetings of two countries’ top officials, they realize that whatever size meeting they negotiate—nine by nine, eight by eight, etc.—our side will typically include one less foreign policy hand, because Jarrett has a standing seat at any table that includes the president.
Not surprisingly, all this influence has won Jarrett legions of detractors. They complain that she has too much control over who sees the president. That she skews his decision-making with her after-hours visits. That she is an incorrigible yes-woman. That she has, in effect, become the chief architect of his very prominent and occasionally suffocating bubble.
There is an element of truth to this critique. While aboard Air Force One at the end of the 2012 campaign, Jarrett turned to Obama and told him, “Mr. President, I don’t understand how you’re not getting eighty-five percent of the vote.” The other Obama aides in the cabin looked around in disbelief before concluding that she’d been earnest.
Still, Jarrett’s role is far more textured than this narrative would suggest. She has served as a teller of hard truths, urging Obama to clean up his initial remarks about Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates’s arrest in 2009, which, she worried, sounded disrespectful to police. She is an all-wise interpreter of the president’s thoughts. When the White House began taking flak for its man-cave sensibilities, senior officials consulted Jarrett to figure out where Obama stood. “The White House counsel Greg Craig stopped by,” recalls a former Jarrett aide. “He was like, ‘Hey, is the president worried about this?’” (He was.) Jarrett even plays the role of advance dining scout for the Obamas, locating restaurants discreet and exacting enough to serve the first family. (Fiola Mare in Georgetown has become a standby.)
So adept is Jarrett at catering to the president’s needs that Michelle Obama has, at least on one occasion, chafed at the portrayal of their relationship. Late in the 2008 campaign, Vogue published a long profile of Jarrett titled “Barack’s Rock.” According to a senior campaign aide, Michelle sniffed about the magazine bestowing a title that she considered hers.
Jarrett’s job may be nothing less than to reflect the most authentic version of Barack Obama back at himself. “My speculation has always been, when you are any president or Democratic nominee, at the pinnacle of American political power, you are necessarily surrounded by layer and layer of bureaucracy,” says a former White House aide. “You’re completely disconnected. For someone to come to you and say, ‘I am going to be the person who is your connection to the real you’ … is very attractive.”
And Jarrett is, in turn, our connection to the real Barack Obama. A decade after his ascent, there is still a basic unknowability about him, a puzzling gap between his talents and the public’s enthusiasm for his years in office. No wonder Jarrett inspires such fevered theorizing. She is the closest we have to a human decoder ring—the only person who can solve the mystery of why this president has left so many feeling so unfulfilled.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Valerie Jarrett’s role in the White House has changed markedly from the first term to the second.
The Clinton alumni Obama initially hired to run his White House and hash out his economic policy were flamboyantly centrist, fanatical about winning over financial markets and moderate voters. In their view, a Democratic president could make no bigger mistake than becoming a captive of the left. And they acted as if they owned the place.
They certainly didn’t view Jarrett as much of a threat. She had enjoyed real clout on the campaign, but the way she used it—encouraging Obama to give his famous race speech, and bringing Latinos, blacks, gays, and women into the heart of the operation at a time when the post-racial rhetoric had gotten thick—didn’t win her much respect. Even after Obama made Jarrett a senior adviser and put her in charge of outreach to constituency groups, her lack of Washington experience made her easy to dismiss. “Larry Summers’s office was literally across the floor [from ours],” says a former Jarrett aide of the president’s top economic adviser. “It was amazing how little he looked at her, talked to her. It was so clear he kind of wanted … nothing to do with her.”
That was a mistake. Jarrett was a beloved figure among the fresh-faced Obama-hands who flocked to Washington. She shepherded their careers, clucked about their health, and turned up unexpectedly at weddings and maternity wards. And though she had been a confidant of Barack and Michelle Obama’s since the early ’90s, the three became even closer after the election. It gradually became clear that she had the president’s blessing to challenge his top brass and better align his White House with the outsider ethos of his candidacy.
In the spring of 2009, Obama called in Summers, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and other members of the economic team to discuss their plan for reforming the financial system. The president was generally pleased with the product, but concerned that it wasn’t aggressive enough. “I want you to go think about, if we were going to do something more in three or four areas, what would they be?” Obama told them, according to a former administration official. “Bring me a proposal.”
A few weeks later, the economic team presented their ideas to other White House staffers, but not the president. They’d tacked on only the most marginal of changes. “No, we were right the first time. We shouldn’t do anything else,” is how the official sums up their basic message. Although Jarrett said she didn’t think they’d done what Obama had instructed them to do, they brought the proposal to him anyway. The president responded as though he’d been primed against it. “He comes in and says, ‘This is not what I asked for,’” says the official. “You can be sure she talked to the president first.”
Jarrett’s inescapable presence made her an object of fear and scorn. “It’s pretty toxic,” says another former administration official. “She went to whatever meeting she wanted to go to—basically all of them—and then would go and whisper to the president. Or at least everyone believed she did. … People don’t trust the process. They think she’s a spy.”
But Jarrett’s involvement clearly served the president well. Over the next several months, Jarrett set up meetings between Obama and more hawkish reformers like former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker and former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Bill Donaldson. Eventually, Obama took up Volcker’s idea of blocking taxpayer-backed banks from making speculative bets, which both Summers and Geithner had resisted.
Jarrett also made her influence felt among the men who plotted Obama’s political strategy. In the spring of 2010, Donna Brazile, a New Orleans native and Democratic elder who ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign, watched with horror as the administration slow-played its response to the BP oil spill. After weeks of back-channeling to White House political director Patrick Gaspard, Brazile finally took her frustration public. “One of the problems I have with the administration is that they’re not tough enough,” she said on ABC. “They are waiting for BP to say, ‘Oh, we’ve got a new plan to stop the oil leak.’ They need to stop it, contain it, clean it up.”
This set off a debate within the White House over whether the president should call Brazile, until, according to a former aide, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel shut it down in favor of his longstanding view that “the worst thing you could possibly do is reward bad behavior.” Jarrett did not consider the matter settled, however. She waited until she and Gaspard were safely away from Emanuel and inside the Oval Office, at which point she asked Gaspard a leading question about the utility of a call. “Sounds good, get her on the phone,” the president replied. Jarrett called Brazile and handed her cell phone to Obama.
The move validated every one of her rivals’ fears. And, as with Summers, personal grievances may have explained it. Emanuel had objected to Jarrett’s portfolio at the start of the administration and questioned the secret-service detail she maneuvered to receive a few months later. In return, Jarrett seemed keen to undermine him.
At one point, Obama personally ordered Emanuel to rein in his habit of screaming at subordinates. Emanuel soon lost his cool at a subsequent meeting and received another talking-to from the president. He was convinced that Jarrett had ratted him out. It was the sort of tradecraft Emanuel himself might have admired had he not been on the receiving end. As a former White House official told me: “In the wild, they would have been natural allies. In captivity, they became natural enemies.”
Whatever the case, calling Brazile was unquestionably the right approach. A few months later, the administration pressured an African American Department of Agriculture employee named Shirley Sherrod to resign after right-wing journalists circulated a video of her appearing to denigrate poor whites. Within a few days, it became apparent that the clip was egregiously out of context and that the ouster of Sherrod, whose husband had been a prominent civil rights leader, was unfair. Critics were furious at the trigger-happy White House—Jim Clyburn, the House’s third-ranking Democrat, told The New York Times he didn’t think a “single black person was consulted before Shirley Sherrod was fired.” For her part, Brazile limited her kvetching to private phone calls and struck her best “we’re all in this together” posture on television.
Jarrett’s work behind the scenes served the president well so long as people like Larry Summers, Rahm Emanuel, and Robert Gibbs (the former press secretary, with whom Jarrett also clashed) remained inside the building. She diversified the views he received without stifling internal debate. But then, one by one, the big personalities left. After two years, Summers and Gibbs had been replaced by far more amenable actors; Emanuel’s strong-willed successor, Bill Daley, lasted less than a year before being replaced by a relative cipher, too.1
Today, Obama’s top economic adviser is Jeff Zients, a former management consultant and Jarrett pal who had no experience in government before joining the administration. The senior adviser seat that David Axelrod once occupied now belongs to Dan Pfeiffer, and the chief of staff is Denis McDonough. Both joined Obama in 2007 and have long since made their peace with Jarrett’s influence. “My sense is Denis does his best to not turn that into a reckoning kind of relationship,” one former White House official told me. “He doesn’t want to test it.”
As Jarrett has outlasted her rivals, it has increasingly fallen on her to do more than simply protect Obama from those who might undermine his presidency. She must nudge him when he becomes self-satisfied and rein in his worst political impulses. It is a position for which she is uniquely unqualified.
Valerie Jarrett is not above keeping a shit list—or as hers was titled, a “least constructive” list. One progressive activist recalls Jarrett holding the document during a meeting and noticing her own name on it, along with the names of others in the room. “It was kind of an honor,” the activist told me. This was not out of character for Jarrett. The woman who once resisted Emanuel’s commandment against rewarding bad behavior has often gone out of her way to suppress dissent among ideological allies and others who question the president. (A White House official says the document was prepared by a staffer acting without orders and that it is not a common practice.)
Consider her interactions with the LGBT community when they agitated for an executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors. Jarrett had been one of the Obama team’s biggest supporters of gay rights since the campaign (long before Obama himself “evolved” on the marriage question). She had even authored a memo advising the president to sign the executive order. But when Obama decided against it in 2012, he dispatched Jarrett to deliver the news to four or five groups active on the issue.
The meeting was a minor fiasco. A BuzzFeed reporter had broken word of the gathering just before it began, prompting Jarrett to lecture everyone in the room for several minutes about speaking to the press. She fumed that the reporter was outside “writing stories,” and told the activists that “we can’t have White House meetings if you do this kind of thing.”
Then, after ticking off the administration’s good deeds on behalf of gays, Jarrett offered no rationale for why Obama was shelving the executive order. She held out the possibility of a study to gauge the order’s effect on business, even though the question had been studied to death. About halfway through the meeting, Jarrett finally produced an explanation: a likely legal challenge. But the legal precedent was clear thanks to executive orders banning other forms of discrimination.
Had Jarrett leveled with the activists—conceding that the decision was political, probably intended to avoid a backlash among business—none of the groups would have been pleased, but many probably would have accepted the verdict and kept details out of the press. The previous fall, the Human Rights Campaign had commissioned a poll showing overwhelming, bipartisan support for the executive order, but declined to make it public for months so as not to embarrass the administration. The Center for American Progress, another group in attendance, had encouraged the LGBT community to abide by a moratorium on public pressure to allow for negotiation.
Instead, the reaction to the meeting was woeful, epitomized by a scathing Washington Post piece quoting the activists. “There was a blowup,” says one longtime advocate. “People were withholding money. … Straight donors, gay donors were like, ‘What is this?’”
When the president made Jarrett his ambassador to the world outside the White House, he did so with a specific purpose in mind: to communicate how important he considered these relationships. “You know she’s speaking for the president, more so than anyone else on the staff,” says a trade association leader who’s met with Jarrett multiple times.
But Jarrett’s obsessiveness about control, and her response to even good-faith criticism, are often self-defeating. “She just cuts off. It’s stone cold,” says one person who received this treatment. “It couldn’t be a conversation.” A former administration official recalls publicly registering a gentle, offhand criticism of the White House, only to draw a one-line e-mail from Jarrett: “Why didn’t you call me first?” Even Jarrett’s most benevolent comments—“I want you to be my best friend,” she likes to say—implicitly threaten an abrupt loss of favor.
With the LGBT community, the agita subsided thanks to the president’s unplanned turnabout on gay marriage the following month. (Obama finally signed the executive order this July.) But on other issues, her heavy-handedness has been more costly. Earlier this year, after House Republicans rejected John Boehner’s overtures on immigration reform, a number of activist groups turned their attention away from Congress and toward the White House. They wanted Obama to sign an executive order protecting illegal immigrants from deportation over the next few years, the way he had back in 2012 for those brought to the country as minors.
The pressure mounted when Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, one of the largest and most established Latino rights groups, gave a speech in March calling out both Boehner for having “pulled the plug on legislation” and Obama for denying he had “the authority to act on [his] own.” Echoing a line that was circulating on the left, she dubbed Obama “the deporter-in-chief.”
A week and a half later, the president and Jarrett summoned representatives from 15 to 20 reform groups to the White House for a meeting. Unlike the gay rights meeting two years earlier, there was no directive about keeping the discussion out of the press. But the activists were later told that the success of the meeting would be judged by the media coverage. “Even if you think that, it was like, ‘Eeeewww,’” says one of the reformers who attended. “I was embarrassed by the meeting.”
The president was in a foul mood, spending most of the next two hours lecturing the activists. You guys are turning on me, Obama said, according to several attendees. That’s what Republicans want, you’re taking the pressure off Boehner. If I was a GOP strategist, I’d be thrilled by what you’re doing. When some of the activists pointed out that the situation in the House was hopeless, Obama would interrupt and talk over them. (Administration officials say Boehner had assured them he would take another shot at the legislation.)
Finally, when it was Murguía’s turn to speak, she tried to put her earlier remarks in context. She explained that, while she’d been critical of the administration, she had also criticized Republicans and had urged her community to elect a more amenable Congress. “It took him what felt like ten minutes—it was probably thirty seconds—to compose himself. You could just feel the tension,” says one activist in the room. Whereupon Obama fell into an extended monologue: You’ve been around this town. You know the press will only report criticism of me. The La Raza president looked on the edge of tears as he spoke. Meanwhile, “Valerie was sitting next to him, staring, giving Murguía stink eye,” says the activist.
Relations with groups that had been critical only grew worse from there. Some were scrubbed from White House e-mail lists, not invited to subsequent meetings, or both. Another activist recalls not hearing from the White House for months, only to get a passive-aggressive e-mail after leveling a harsh critique of the president. “I don’t work for you,” the activist wrote back.
In late June, the president reversed course and effectively promised to sign the sought-after executive order by the end of the summer. Some of the critics had been rehabilitated, but not Murguía, who was left out of the Rose Garden event where the president announced his decision. “It was such a shitty thing to do,” says one of the activists of Murguía’s treatment. In any case, the president soon changed his mind yet again. In September, he announced that he wouldn’t consider the order until after the election. Suddenly, all the bad will that had built up throughout the year came pouring forth. “Where we have demanded leadership and courage from both Democrats and the president, we’ve received nothing but broken promises and a lack of political backbone,” the head of a prominent pro-immigration group told the Post.
Jarrett’s highly disciplined outreach effort had been a tactical mess. While the White House held some two-dozen meetings to take the pulse of activists throughout the summer, there was rarely a meaningful back-and-forth on strategy, especially in the run-up to the big announcements. “It does make it hard for dissenting voices to be raised,” says another activist who deals with the administration on the issue. “Almost everything is raised to the level of personal loyalty.”
The Clinton White House was porous and chaotic, with numerous staffers working numerous angles at any given moment. But it made advocates feel like part of the process. “People protected them more with the press,” says one of the activists. “No one protects Obama. Part of being hermetically sealed is, if you don’t want shit to leak, the higher the premium is on leaks, which gives advocates more of an incentive to leak.” In fact, it’s precisely because the activists don’t feel listened to that they speak to the press. And when the White House complains, it exposes itself even further. “They show you where they’re vulnerable,” says the activist. “If you’re worth your salt as an activist, that’s where you hit them. See: ‘deporter-in-chief.’”
PETE SOUZA/THE WHITE HOUSE/CORBIS
Jarrett and Obama comparing notes backstage before a reception in Philadelphia in 2011.
Jarrett isn’t always standoffish when outsiders are critical. After business leaders complained about the president’s occasional populist flourish—most notably his late 2009 comment that “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat-cat bankers”—Jarrett began pressing Axelrod and the speech-writing team to strip potentially inflammatory lines from his public statements. “Valerie viewed Wall Street and the business community as a constituency and was generally uncomfortable with expressions of chastisement toward Wall Street,” Axelrod told me by e-mail.
On one level, it was Jarrett’s job to soothe the fragile egos of corporate executives. The relationship between the White House and business is one of the many relationships that Jarrett’s Office of Public Engagement formally oversees. But on a deeper level, Jarrett fundamentally empathized with the concerns of business in ways she sometimes didn’t with other groups. “You could tell she felt at home with private-sector business leaders,” says a former aide. “Even health care—it was a presidential priority, the entire White House was involved. But I’d never seen her animated until it was CEOs talking about health care.”
This may seem at odds with Jarrett’s first-term role as Obama’s liberal id. But back then she was largely acting in opposition to the Clintonites around Obama. In terms of who she believes has the power to make or break the presidency, and therefore who needs access to the highest levels of the White House, Jarrett is not so different from her nemeses.
Jarrett was groomed from birth to be a thoroughly establishment figure—her family’s roots in Chicago go back several generations—and she accepted her destiny gracefully. She worked as a corporate lawyer and later ran Mayor Richard Daley’s housing and transit authorities. When Harvard Law Professor David Wilkins conducted a study of the Chicago legal world in the late ’90s, he found that most of the city’s lawyers were acquainted with Jarrett. “Valerie is the liaison between the white North Shore elites and the black South Sides elites,” he told David Remnick in The Bridge, a biography of Obama. Upon accepting the White House job, Jarrett resigned from no fewer than seven corporate and nonprofit boards.
Any casual follower of Jarrett’s West Wing comings and goings these days will notice a distinct fondness for big shots, corporate or otherwise. It’s not just that Jarrett is a fixture at the standard A-list events—parachuting into New York for Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People Gala, popping into a birthday party for Britain’s Prince George. Jarrett also inhabits a much more rarefied plane than the standard Washington eminence. She attends the highest-profile arguments at the Supreme Court and often accompanies the president on fund-raising trips to New York, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley. She recently made a cameo on “The Good Wife” and appeared in a Billie Jean King documentary.
“She went to whatever meeting she wanted to go to—basically all of them—and then would go and whisper to the president,” says a former White House official. “People don’t trust the process. They think she’s a spy.”
“Valerie’s probably best known as the go-to person for the real opinion leaders in business and in the celebrity world,” says a former administration official. By contrast, she can come across as bored when meeting with the political world’s grayer operators. One leader of an influential but relatively anonymous advocacy group recalls arranging a meeting with Jarrett to explain how his team was advancing a cause dear to the president. “I felt like she was looking at her watch. She was annoyed that I even felt it was reasonable for me to meet with her,” says this person. “How dare I take up her time?”
In some cases, this outlook has served the administration well. Jarrett made an ally of Rupert Murdoch on immigration reform and soothed Silicon Valley in the tense moments after the NSA revelations. “She has very strong relationships with Facebook and Google,” says her fellow senior adviser, John Podesta.
Jarrett also helped mastermind the public-relations campaign to enroll seven million Americans in Obamacare prior to this March’s deadline. She spent months fine-tuning a plan to reach the uninsured “where they are,” by which she meant enlisting the figures they look to for guidance: community leaders, DJs, pop-culture icons. “I can remember dozens of times going back to her with plans, having this x’d out and that crossed out. This person is a bad idea for this, not that,” recalls an aide. Jarrett excelled at making the biggest asks personally. “When it came to getting other major people involved—you know, Zach Galifianakis, an LL Cool J tweet in the Grammies, Katy Perry—we were like, ‘We need to have Valerie make this call, sit in on this meeting,’” says Anton Gunn, one of the administration officials in charge of the enrollment push.
But in other cases, Jarrett’s establishmentarianism has simply reinforced the administration’s blind spots. There is, for example, Jarrett’s underappreciated influence in an area like budget policy. After Republicans took control of the House in 2011, Obama had to decide whether to stick with his efforts to boost the fragile economy or join in the deficit-cutting that Republicans were demanding. He opted for the latter, agreeing to slice billions from the 2011 budget. While some administration economic officials argued for staring down the House GOP, the approach never had a chance. “That wasn’t a huge debate because [former adviser David] Plouffe and Bill [Daley] and Valerie agreed,” a senior White House official told me later that year.
The White House believed that avoiding a fight was better for the economy and would help the two sides reach an even bigger deal later on—one that raised taxes and cut trillions in spending over ten years. This was flawed in two ways. First, notwithstanding the enthusiasm for deficit-cutting on the set of “Morning Joe” (where Jarrett is an occasional guest), it was a perverse priority at a time when the country still faced an unemployment crisis. Second, the White House completely misunderstood the psychology of House Republicans, who took Obama’s concessions as a vindication of their anti-spending mania and repeatedly balked at tax increases. Inexplicably, the White House continued to pursue a deal for years after the GOP showed its bad faith, efforts that Jarrett supported as well.
It wasn’t the only time she got burned by assuming good intentions. In 2010, Jarrett met with members of the Business Roundtable, a group representing the largest corporations in the country. She was proud that she had dialed back the president’s occasional verbal salvos and hoped it might win him some support in exchange. “She was like, ‘Last time I was here, you guys told us the key thing was the rhetoric,’” recalls a former colleague. “ ‘Look at the president’s speeches. They’re very different in tone based on your input.’”
The group’s chairman took this all in, then offered the all-too-predictable response. “Yes, yes, we noted that,” he said, according to the colleague. “We have five other objections.”
The Obama era has been deeply disorienting for the left. Eight years ago, progressives would have delighted at the idea of a president who withdrew from Iraq, remade the rules for Wall Street, slowed the proliferation of greenhouse gases, brought the country within spitting distance of universal health care, and multiplied the rights of gays and lesbians. And yet it’s hard to be a self-respecting progressive these days and not feel a frustration that borders on disillusionment. The victories have been muddled, the errors unforced, the ambitions preemptively scaled back.
How could these two legacies coexist in one presidency? They emanate from the worldview that Jarrett and Obama share—call it “boardroom liberalism.” It’s a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity. It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on high—one that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.
Notwithstanding his early career as a community organizer, Obama, like Jarrett, is fundamentally a man of the inside. It’s why he put a former Citigroup executive and Robert Rubin chief of staff named Michael Froman in charge of assembling his economic team in 2008, why he avoided a deep restructuring of Wall Street, why he abruptly junked the public option during the health care debate, why he so ruthlessly pursues leakers and the journalists who cultivate them. It explains why so many of his policy ideas—from jobs for the long-term unemployed to mentoring minority youth—rely on the largesse of corporations.
It’s the boardroom liberal in Obama who gets bent out of shape over criticism from outsiders, despite having once urged progressives to press him the way civil rights activists like A. Philip Randolph pressured Franklin Roosevelt. He is a president profoundly uncomfortable with populist rhetoric. He prefers to negotiate behind closed doors, as he did on the stimulus, health care, and deficit reduction, rather than wage a state-by-state political campaign to force concessions. Except for a handful of moments over the last six years—like when the administration tried to pass a second stimulus bill known as the American Jobs Act—Obama has rarely tried to mobilize public opinion in any sustained fashion. He has been consistently slow and half-hearted about taking unilateral action.
Bill Clinton was in many ways more conservative than Obama, whom you couldn’t imagine signing a draconian welfare law, or an anti-gay-marriage law, or, for that matter, de-regulating Wall Street. But Clinton was not above riling up voters for partisan gain. By August of 1995, the year Republicans took over Congress, Clinton and his surrogates were flogging them daily over “Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.” When Republicans retook the House in 2011, Obama spent most of the year shunning partisan taunts in hopes of consummating a grand bargain. And Jarrett was there at his side, amplifying those sensibilities. “The context for that is that it’s consistent with who the president is,” Jarrett’s first-term chief of staff, Michael Strautmanis, told me. “She has only one agenda. And it is the president’s agenda—either from conversations he’s had with her, what she’s heard him say, or based upon their history together.”
As it happens, the way the White House runs these days does even less to check Obama’s inclinations. According to a former high-level aide, there is no longer a daily meeting between the president and his top advisers. Under the old system, if the president waved off one adviser’s objection to his preferred plan of action, another could step in to vouch for the objection’s merit. The advice Obama gets now, though, comes more regularly through one-off interactions with the likes of Jarrett and Denis McDonough, who don’t have anyone else to back them up. In the second term, observes the former aide, “Maybe the president says, more often than in the past, ‘We’re doing it.’”
The result is that Obama has become even more persuaded of his righteousness as the years have gone on. His belief that he can win over opponents is unshaken. Unfortunately, these opponents include a party in the throes of radicalism and a self- interested class of ultra-rich that increasingly calls to mind plutocracy—not people whose better instincts you can appeal to. Obama and Jarrett should know this. Any time they have made preemptive concessions to the GOP or business leaders, their negotiating partners have simply pocketed the concessions and asked for more. From the budget battles to immigration reform, they have consistently overestimated the ability of Republican elites to reason with their rank and file. As recently as early this year, the official White House position was that it preferred Congress to ban workplace discrimination against gays. Congress!
Perhaps no episode illustrates this mind-set better than the fate of the consumer agency that the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill created. In 2010, Jarrett and two other advisers persuaded Obama to install a genuine populist in the person of Elizabeth Warren to set up the agency. But they never intended for her to actually run it, a promotion Warren aggressively sought. “Having Warren in the short-term role was their elegant solution,” says a former administration official. “It was the best way to appease the left while preserving [Obama’s] reasonableness to business. That’s what drives him: Do they look reasonable? … That’s what Valerie’s all about.”
It’s no surprise that Barack Obama and Valerie Jarrett would govern as reasonable people. It’s who they are. The tragedy is that we live in surpassingly unreasonable times.
This refers to former chief of staff Jack Lew, now the Treasury secretary. A bit of explanation is in order: While Lew was regarded as a very strong figure on matters of policy, he was less interested in the political goings-on at the White House, and therefore much less of a presence when it came to politics. As one former top Obama aide put it to me, “Jack Lew as chief of staff was not a political person. He was making the trains run on time on the policy side. He would report back at the end of the day on the governance side.” Recall that Lew ran the White House in 2012, when Obama was campaigning for re-election. Most of the strategic political decisions within the White House were made by senior adviser David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, at that point.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.