In a no-drama White House on the brink of big changes, there will remain a constant — Valerie Jarrett, longtime friend and trusted adviser to President Barack Obama.
While others in Obama's inner circle will leave the White House this year or shift to new responsibilities, Jarrett says she already has the job she wants: senior adviser to the president, White House liaison to outside groups and perhaps the only person left in Washington short of the president himself whose belief in the promise of hope and change remains unshaken.
Obama's detractors may dismiss his "Yes We Can" mantra as showing a naivete about the ways of Washington. Even many of his supporters now show symptoms of hope-and-change fatigue.
But Jarrett, a successful businesswoman who cut her political teeth in Chicago's city hall, can hardly be described as naive. As White House emissary to cities, states and minority groups, she hears the frustrations of Americans more directly than any other senior staffer.
Jarrett is the only woman within the president's tightest cadre of trusted advisers. And having formed a deep bond with the president and first lady Michelle Obama over nearly two decades, she might be the only one in the room who knows what the president is really thinking.
Jarrett's critics have dismissed her standing in the White House as simply an extension of that friendship, painting her as more of a confidant and less of a substantive policy adviser. It's an assumption her supporters say is oversimplified at best and insulting at worst.
"The president trusts her," said former White House communications director Anita Dunn. "But he also trusts her to get the job done."
Jarrett's turf extends to a vast array of issues and her responsibilities are far-reaching. She is the go-to person in the White House for state and local officials, the business community, women and minority groups, and her job is to represent these varied interests to the president.
Outreach is often symbolic, meaning success and failure can't always be easily measured — at least not in the short term. But Jarrett, 53, has been at the center of some of the administration's most sensitive engagement efforts.
When business leaders accused the president of being anti-business in the midst of the economic crisis, it was Jarrett, a former CEO of a real estate development firm and board member of the Chicago Stock Exchange, who invited small groups of executives in for a series of informal lunches to ease the tension.
Obama asked Jarrett to reach out to another critical audience earlier this month and speak to gay and lesbian advocates, who have criticized Obama for being too slow to fulfill his promises. Amid a spate of recent suicides among gay and lesbian youth, Jarrett assured the community that they had supporters in the White House.
And during the height of the Gulf oil spill, Obama tasked Jarrett with being the White House liaison to the Gulf Coast governors — all Republicans, plus Florida's Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent. Jarrett approached the assignment with her trademark style — understated, empathetic and organized — holding morning conference calls with the governors every day for three months, and traveling frequently to the region.
Her work won her the rarest of victories in the current political climate: praise from Republicans.
"She is probably the most effective person I've ever had the opportunity to work with in a White House," Alabama's Republican Gov. Bob Riley said.
Riley said he may disagree on politics with Jarrett. But he recognized that she put in the time to fully understand the needs of the region, and take its concerns to the president
Jarrett speaks with a soft but precise voice, but is highly protective of her public image. She declined to be interviewed for this article.
When she speaks publicly, she often focuses on her admiration for the president's agenda and of what a "luxury" it is for her to contribute. She's also regularly seen, if not heard, standing at the president's side when the cameras are rolling.
Those close to Jarrett say the president's trust in her is built into their shared vision of hope and change to increase the diversity of voices within the government, and the voices that the government listens to when shaping policy.
Behind Jarrett's wonky title — assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement — is a portfolio tailored to that mission. Her focus is policy, not politics, a mandate formalized by the decision to separate her offices from the political affairs unit, where they were under previous administrations.
Like Obama, Jarrett brings a unique background to the White House. She was born in Shiraz, Iran, where her American parents lived while her father ran a hospital as part of a program that sent U.S. doctors to developing countries. Jarrett also spent part of her childhood in London before her family moved to Chicago.
Jarrett first met the Obamas in 1991, when she wanted to hire a young lawyer to join her staff at Chicago's planning and development department. But first the candidate, then named Michelle Robinson, wanted Jarrett to meet her fiance, Barack Obama.
After the three met for dinner, Jarrett hired the future first lady and quickly assumed the role of mentor to the Obamas, advising them on their careers and introducing them to many of the Chicago political and social elite that would go on to play a role in the presidential campaign.
The understanding that Jarrett, perhaps more than anyone else in the White House besides the first lady, has the president's ear has drawn praise and raised questions.
"People certainly know that she's close to the president and it reassures them that they're talking to somebody who is the president's eyes and ears," said Cecilia Munoz, who serves under Jarrett as the director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
Yet friends say she's sensitive to criticism that her deep loyalty to Obama would keep her from giving him unvarnished advise or lead her to block out those who would. She goes to great lengths to avoid any appearance that she's using their friendship to overstep her bounds as an adviser.
"We work very hard to compartmentalize," Jarrett said during a recent appearance on ABC's "The View." Jarrett said she calls Obama "Mr. President" during the workday, but "when we're out of the office and we're just having dinner or something, then I talk his ear off and I'm just Valerie Jarrett."
Colleagues say Jarrett is intent on ensuring that there are many voices speaking to president, including White House staffers outside his inner circle. It's not uncommon for her to ask junior staffers to present their memos to the president directly rather than through her. And she's taken a particular interest in White House women, holding monthly dinners to discuss their concerns and urging the president to appoint more women to senior positions.
Underlying her approach, those close to Jarrett say, is a level of confidence — in the president and in herself — that allows her to feel comfortable opening doors for others, while being unconcerned about her own next step. When her name was raised as a possible replacement for former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, it was Jarrett who took her name off the list.
"I would like to just do what I'm doing," she said.
- Chicago Stock Exchange
- President Barack Obama
- Republican Gov. Bob Riley
- White House
- Valerie Jarrett
- Yes We Can
- White House communications director Anita Dunn
- first lady Michelle Obama