Valerie Jarrett plays a lot of roles. She is the president’s closest personal adviser, the first couple’s first friend and the chief liaison for the White House. She has also, for many of the administration’s discouraged supporters, embodied Obama’s cold shoulder.
But now, like her boss, she’s warming up.
“Part of what we have to do is be better messengers,” Jarrett, told an audience at the White House on Thursday. She added that the administration is eager to “engage and have a conversation” and that it is “open to good suggestions from wherever they come.”
For all those overtures, the new openness has failed to quell a frequent — and caustic — question about VJ, as she is known in the West Wing:
What, exactly, does Valerie Jarrett do?
In recent months, the answer is more. More meetings. More appearances. More listening. And more engagement.
Jarrett’s new approach reflects the transition in the president’s own campaign posture from talk-to-the-hand to wide-open arms. But the success of Obama’s outreach will depend a lot on whether disillusioned supporters accept his inscrutable insider as an effective envoy to the outside world.
Current and former senior administration officials describe Jarrett in 10,000-feet terms. She is “close to omniscient,” said one, and presides over an expansive portfolio. “She has a broader view,” former communications director Anita Dunn said.
A closer look yields a more contradictory picture.
The high-fashion aide carries the high-octane title “White House senior adviser” and is a barometer for how Obama and his wife will react to events. Except she has no operational expertise and it’s unclear exactly how she advises the president.
As the head of the Office of Public Engagement, she serves as the administration’s contact to local governments, constituency groups and the business community. Except that critics have accused the administration of failing to engage.
Jarrett organized a grievance-airing dinner in 2009 with the president and frustrated women in the administration. Except many women’s advocates outside the administration find her inaccessible.
She provides the president and Michelle Obama with intelligence on staff squabbles. Except that staff squabbles, especially with former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, have often centered on Jarrett herself.
And while administration officials argue that Jarrett’s unique stature has allowed her to stand in for the president and make calls to executives during the auto bailouts, or governors during the gulf oil spill, it is that very prominence that has made Jarrett such a big target.
Disgruntled Obama donors in the financial industry, reluctant to take their ire out on the president, have cast Jarrett as insufficiently sophisticated on economic issues and incapable of brooking any dissent about Obama.
“I have always thought she was a liability,” said one prominent investor and donor who, like many others, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of angering the White House. “I’ve talked to people in the White House about it, and they have agreed with me, but they are scared to say anything.”
Another influential Obama bundler said that after telling Jarrett that the business community felt under attack by the president, she responded, “They don’t realize how much we did for them; we are protecting them from themselves.”
“If the goal is to assuage people,” the donor pointed out, “that’s probably not how you do it.”
And the liaison to a top-tier donor said that appeals to Jarrett for a meeting between the donor and Obama on an issue of public policy prompted a surprisingly brusque blowing off.
“He’s busy,” Jarrett told the handler.
A prominent member of the abortion rights community, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of further harming relations with Jarrett’s office, said there was initially great hope that Jarrett would act as their messenger to the president. But whereas they have discovered that senior adviser David Plouffe is motivated by the electoral map and Obama campaign manager Jim Messina is motivated by avoiding political headaches, no one is quite sure what motivates Jarrett. As a result, the advocate said, many in the abortion rights community have discounted her.
Past occupants of Jarrett’s office argued that special-interest grumbling was nothing new, but that critics nevertheless deserved an earnest hearing.
Minyon Moore, who oversaw outreach in the Clinton administration, recalled a time when a supporter publicly criticized Clinton only a day after the president went to great lengths to speak at his event.