“Obviously you get your back up,” said Moore. “But the president’s response was ‘Let’s deal with this. He’s our friend, and if he’s saying it, then we might have a problem here.’ Everybody has their own journey and how they want to do it. The president [Clinton] was the kind of person for whom constituencies mattered.”
Since Obama’s numbers have taken a dive this year, constituencies started mattering more to this president, too. And, perhaps not coincidentally, Jarrett has become more available.
“My experiences have been markedly different, very positive,” Rick Jacobs, founder of the Courage Campaign, an advocacy organization with an emphasis on gay issues, said about recent interactions with Jarrett’s office. He discounted the notion that an effort to court gay donors explained Jarrett’s uptick in activity, especially on the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But he could provide no reason for her change.
“It’s a good question to ask her,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”
In an acknowledgment that the administration needs to do a better job of disseminating its message to the base, Jon Carson, who had worked as the Obama campaign’s field organizer, joined Jarrett’s office in January as operational director. He has organized Thursday evening listening sessions with myriad constituencies for Jarrett, and a few months ago sought advice from Maria Echaveste, another Clinton outreach official.
Echaveste said it was key to understand that sometimes supporters needed to go public in their criticism, and that the office shouldn’t hold that against them. “It’s counterproductive to have enemies,” Echaveste said.
This summer, Jarrett met with Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has had years of strained relations with the White House. “It’s important that this is the first time that we had any kind of communication,” he said.
A chorus of supporters has been singing the praises of Jarrett’s recent outreach — at least in conversations monitored by the White House. Administration officials, mayors, activists and CEOs called Jarrett “effective,” “compassionate,” “engaged,” “consistent” and “caring.”
“She makes you feel that you are part of a team,” said Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, adding that Jarrett’s office put together a call with Obama in which mayors offered input on the president’s American Jobs Act.
But this month, Nutter, a leading voice for gun control, circulated a petition calling on the White House to fight the loosening of laws against concealed handguns, an issue the administration has all but abandoned. Asked whether he had discussed this with Jarrett, Nutter mentioned vague conversations about Jarrett “coordinating” talks, before adding, “I haven’t asked for a whole lot on that particular point.”
The White House staunchly defended Jarrett.
“Their complaints may tell you something about how they see the world,” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said of the Wall Street critics. “But they don’t tell you anything about Valerie. She is smart, tough and sensible and doesn’t pretend to be the arbiter of all things for the financial sector.”
Communications director Dan Pfeiffer says that Jarrett’s job is not congressional relations and that the critiques are a form of “shooting the messenger.” Others said that she had provided stability in the West Wing and a constant reminder to the president of his core beliefs. She championed his decision to tackle health-care reform before jobs, for example, because, she argued, he was a historic president sent to do big things. And officials said that when some White House strategists argued to take the base for granted as they chased independent voters and the middle class, Jarrett persuaded the president to be more mindful of his key constituencies.
Pete Rouse, a counselor to the president, pointed out that Obama now includes a line in his jobs pitch about making the middle class accessible to the bottom rungs of society.
“She has a lot to do with that,” he said.
And yet, during the torturous negotiations with Republicans this year, Jarrett agreed with the White House strategy of pursuing cuts to programs supportive of society’s bottom rung to prove the president’s deficit-hawk bona fides.
“She was,” Rouse said, “very much with the program.”
It’s not surprising then that Obama’s base remains wary of Jarrett, uncertain of her authenticity and influence. The White House has apparently calculated that more exposure, and more assertions of openness, will solve the problem.
At the end of a September event with African American bloggers, Jarrett took the podium after the president dropped by to pitch his jobs program.
“Well that was nice surprise, wasn’t it?” Jarrett said, although no one on the panel seemed particularly surprised. “When the president heard you were here,” she added, “he said, ‘Another important audience for me to go and deliver my message to.’ ”
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