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What Makes Valerie Jarrett Different Than Other Presidential Advisors?


Before the president boarded Air Force One for Beijing over the weekend, he named his attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch. And as always, one prominent guest at that White House nominating ceremony - Valerie Jarrett. Her official title is senior adviser to the president and head of the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. And a lot has been written about Jarrett, who has a say on everything from major policy decisions to where the Obamas dine. Writer Noam Scheiber says she's the closest we have to a human decoder ring for the president. His piece, "Inside The Bubble With Valerie And Barack," is in the latest issue of the New Republic Magazine.

NOAM SCHEIBER: You often see presidents who have loyalists - people who've known them for years and who bring them to the White House. But it's rare that the president will give them such enormous power. She runs a handful of very influential West Wing bureaucracies. As a senior adviser, she's only one of three people with that role, in the room with the president before he makes every critical decision that he makes.

And I think often what you've seen with other loyalists who come to Washington with a president is that they tend to leave after a few years. So it's rare for someone to have this much influence and this much staying power in a White House.

CORNISH: And we should remind people of her biography. She's a corporate lawyer. She's from Chicago. She served on many boards in the city and also was a city administrator in the Daley administration - the Richard Daley administration. Give us an example of an early policy debate in the Obama administration where she had influence or exercised power.

SCHEIBER: So one was financial reform. We don't think of Valerie Jarrett as associated with financial reform, but she did play an important role. In the spring of 2009, the president's economic advisers led by Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, brought him an outline for financial reform. The president told them he did not think it was tough enough. He wanted some more options.

Inside the White House this was litigated. What the economic team basically tried to do was bring him the same proposal with a couple of marginal changes. Valerie Jarrett was at this meeting. She said you know what? I don't think you've done what the president has asked you to do.

The economic team did not listen. They presented this to the president. When the president walked in the room for this meeting, it was pretty clear that he had been primed to dismiss it out of hand. And the overwhelming suspicion was that Valerie Jarrett had basically come to him after that previous meeting and said they have not done what you've asked them to do. Send them back to the drawing board. He didn't even really hear them out. He just told them to give it another try.

CORNISH: Isn't she in fact doing what a president wants in a senior adviser? And is she performing her duties in a way that's all that different from any other past close adviser to any other president?

SCHEIBER: I think yes, but yes, it is absolutely important for the president - any president to have someone in the room who knows them well, who knows what they ultimately want to make their presidency about. The question is how many people besides that person should be in the room? Do you want a circle that's fairly wide so that that person gets a hearing but other people with specific policy expertise also get to weigh in and the president synthesizes all those into making his decision? Or do you have a circle that's so small that ultimately you just get a handful of people affirming what the president wants to do in every situation which may not be the best thing for him or for the country?

CORNISH: In the aftermath of the most recent election, at least one publication, Politico, posted an article raising the question of whether Valerie Jarrett should resign. You've also have lots of left-leaning and progressive voices in your story criticizing her. How much of this is just a reflection of how people are feeling about President Obama himself? I mean, is she a scapegoat?

SCHEIBER: Yeah, I don't know if she's a scapegoat. But I think that Ms. Jarrett very rarely goes rogue. She very rarely does things that are not authorized or that the president is not comfortable with. So if you are upset with Valerie Jarrett, you are probably upset with Barack Obama. The question is whether with someone so influential with the president, if there aren't moments where she should be doing something more than just affirming his instincts. Maybe she should be challenging those instincts in key moments.

CORNISH: I want to bring this out of the realm of kind of palace intrigue, right? People in Washington are obsessed with this. But in the end, what does it matter? I mean why should we care about what Valerie Jarrett is up to in the White House?

SCHEIBER: Well, there are a couple ways to come at it. One, I would say, is this is a president who had a background as a community organizer. When he came into office, he told a lot of progressive groups that he wanted to be challenged. The problem is in practice, he really doesn't like being criticized from the left. He believes that progressives who question his strategy and his tactics in particular situations are really kind of questioning his motives.

I think that's a really unhealthy dynamic. It's an unhealthy thing for a president to think. And I think someone like Valerie Jarrett really reinforces that belief.

So I think the difference between sort of the promise of the Obama presidency and what it would mean for a set of progressive policies and the reality of what we see, which is a president who's very thin-skinned about criticism and who gets his backup when he's pushed from the left and actually kind of reacts in the opposite direction - kind of retreats - shuts out progressives and sort of tries to negotiate his own deals with the other side behind closed doors. It's a very different dynamic than the one we imagined when he took over.

CORNISH: Noam Scheiber, thanks so much for talking with us.

SCHEIBER: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Noam Scheiber - his article, "Inside The Bubble With Valerie And Barack," appears in the centennial issue of the New Republic Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.