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As Obama's staff shifts, one aide holds fast

Valerie Jarrett has long been the president's closest confidant, but she's steadily becoming more visible at his side – even as a new chief of staff comes on board.

February 19, 2011|By Christi Parsons, Washington Bureau
  • Senior advisor Valerie Jarrett has taken on a higher profile even with the advent of a new White House chief of staff, Bill Daley, center.
Senior advisor Valerie Jarrett has taken on a higher profile even with the… (Larry Downing, Reuters )

Reporting from Washington — It was all in a recent day's work for Valerie Jarrett.

She reassured Jewish leaders about White House strategy on Egypt, helped the first lady sync her spring agenda with her husband's, ushered a former Fed chairman into the Oval Office, soothed the Rev. Al Sharpton's concerns about education policy and took a stroll with President Obama across Lafayette Park to patch things up with some irritated CEOs.

The schedule illustrates that no one else in the White House now has a range of responsibilities equal to Jarrett's. When Obama took office, she was the least seen of his four senior advisors. Now Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, chief political strategist David Axelrod and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs have all departed. Jarrett, 54, remains, picking up new duties from each of them. Long the closest personal confidant of Barack and Michelle Obama, she is steadily becoming more visible at the president's side.

New Chief of Staff Bill Daley may be the White House major-domo, but when there is a staffer in the presidential limo, more often than not it is Jarrett.

Before coming to the White House, Jarrett was head of the Habitat Co., which develops and manages residential properties. The arrival of Daley, until recently an executive at JPMorgan Chase & Co., raises the question of how the two former business executives will jockey within the White House power structure.

In an interview, Daley scoffed at the idea of a rivalry. The two have known each other since she worked for his brother, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, in a family that keeps copious record of services rendered.

"We aren't best-buddies sort of thing, but she was always helpful to Rich," Daley says. "She's one of the people I felt confident could tell me about the job, how this place works, what's good and bad, how I can be helpful."

When Jarrett voiced concern that no women's names were being floated to replace Gibbs as press secretary, for instance, Daley joined her in requesting more diversity in the pool of candidates. When his 7:30 a.m. senior staff meetings break up, he says, Jarrett often lingers to talk with him.

In a larger sense, insiders say, that means Jarrett doesn't have to jockey with anyone.

"She has a unique relationship with the president — a deep understanding of him," said Axelrod. "That is critical to him. It's important to him to have people who have that relationship around him."

She is a consensus-builder who reinforces Obama's tendency toward centrism, but is also a voice for women and minorities in policy considerations. Her involvement in an issue has the presidential imprint. Her presence is seen as his proxy, as when she visited with the Dalai Lama while Obama first paid respects to the Chinese president.

Jarrett hasn't made everything smooth for her boss. As Obama's liaison with business, for example, she strained relations with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its president, Tom Donohue, when she said publicly that the White House preferred meeting with real industry executives such as the members of a competing organization, the Business Roundtable. At the time, the Roundtable was considered somewhat more supportive of White House initiatives on healthcare and climate change.

Obama's Wall Street supporters also wondered why Jarrett didn't stop Obama from referring to bankers as "fat cats," a phrase the president quickly abandoned.

One financial services executive described Jarrett as "tough as nails" and "very political." He said she drew "a combination of fear and respect" from business executives who know her. As a measure of the trepidation she inspires, when one business leader was asked to talk about Jarrett on the record, he said: "It would only be good."

Officially, Jarrett is senior advisor and assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement. Unofficially, she has been an advisor on just about every major issue Obama has faced.

Staffers tend to speak in nebulous terms when describing Jarrett's role, possibly because so much of what she does is, by her own design, behind the scenes.

One aide tells this story:

A few months into the administration, staffers noticed that the irascible economic advisor Larry Summers was doing a lot of the talking in top-level meetings. After one meeting, Jarrett mused aloud that Christina Romer, then the head of Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, seemed to have been stifled.

"I didn't think much of it," said the aide, who requested anonymity to speak about the private comment, "until the next time we were all with the president again."

This time, the aide noticed, Obama pointedly called on Romer for her view, pressing her with follow-up questions that made it clear that interjections from others were not welcome at the moment.

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