The Boardroom Liberal

Valerie Jarrett, Obama Consigliere—and Democracy Killer

In the person of the President’s top adviser, Niccolo Machiavelli meets the modern HR manager. And no, that’s not a good thing.

11.12.14 10:45 AM ET

There are a lot of ways to destroy a democracy. And in a culture as paranoid as ours, we freak out about them all the time.

A president can do it, indulging his whims through unwritten laws and executive action. A cabal can do it, selling their influence to the highest bidder.

A junta can do it, using their military power to overtly or covertly control decisions at the highest level. Financial interests can do it, bending public officials to their will with threats of an economic crisis that could lose them their jobs.

And the people themselves can do it, abdicating the virtues and responsibilities of citizenship.

Can a human resources manager do it?

It’s almost too late to make a difference, but that’s the question insiders are now beginning to ask out loud about Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s constant political personal adjutant.

For years, the debate about Jarrett’s career-long presence at the president’s side has been mired in identity politics. Just this week, Jonathan Capehart insisted irritably at The Washington Post that the “one difference between Jarrett and others who have wielded the same kind of power in the West Wing is that she is a woman. Were she a man,” he sniffed, “her job would not be subject to endless ‘What does he really do?’ questions. Were she a man, she wouldn’t be called ‘the night stalker’ for walking with her longtime friend back to the private residence. Were she a man, her willingness to use her elbows to do what she thinks is right for the president would be applauded.”

As any Occupy-style progressive or old-school ‘70s liberal knows, this is bullshit—as Noam Scheiber explained with deadly precision in an explosive critique at The New Republic. Seeking to explain the left’s love-hate relationship with the current administration, Scheiber chalked it up to “the worldview that Jarrett and Obama share—call it ‘boardroom liberalism.’ It’s a worldview,” wrote Scheiber, “that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity.”

But wait, there’s more. “It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on high—one that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites.”

Scheiber homes in on the way this corporatist ethos runs like a vein of silver through Jarrett’s role in the White House. A former corporate lawyer with deep family roots in patronage-fueled Chicago, Jarrett “resigned from no fewer than seven corporate and nonprofit boards” in order to join Obama in Washington. There, she was instrumental in ensuring that the president could “rely on the largesse of corporations,” soothing whatever “fragile egos of corporate executives” needed therapy along the way.

Yet Scheiber didn’t pursue the trail of breadcrumbs all the way. The ultimate boardroom figure isn’t a hands-on operator accountable to no one but the CEO himself. The ultimate boardroom figure reposes in splendor atop the world’s economic heap—an eminently apolitical position. Jarrett, by sharp contrast, plays a subtle, passive-aggressive role that would seem stereotypically “womanish” were it not sketched out with such brilliant foresight by Niccolo Machiavelli, the patron sinner of patriarchal power-tripping.

Machiavelli didn’t counsel the Prince to become a human resources manager, of course. After all, the Prince of necessity had to focus on defeating his external enemies. Although sometimes the Prince was required to attend to his internal foes, that very division of Princely labor made it necessary for someone—someone else—to make internal politics his full-time job. That, of course, was Machiavelli himself, or Machiavelli’s creation: the clever, devoted, unaccountable expert in manipulation and control.

Scheiber inferred that Jarrett “is the closest we have to a human decoder ring” capable of unveiling “the real Barack Obama.” What is needed, however, is to decode Jarrett’s role—and here, identity politics is useless. Whoever the “real” Valerie Jarrett may be, her role is one in which Machiavelli’s musty old consigliere—and Henry Kissinger’s twentieth-century model—is updated for today’s corporatist times. But instead of board member, the definitive organizational role in contemporary corporatism is (yep) the human resources manager. In an ideal corporate bureaucracy, the HR manager handles all internal personnel problems, freeing up the leader to lead—by example, by sheer force of presence, by being whoever he or she truly is.

As Scheiber intuited, “Jarrett’s job may be nothing less than to reflect the most authentic version of Barack Obama back at himself.” It speaks volumes that the President of the United States would believe his own human resources need to be managed in such a way. But it speaks even more about American officialdom today that Jarrett’s full role is such a perfect expression of its characteristic type: the therapist-slash-personal assistant-slash-senior-vice-president.

Jarrett is the first person to fully inhabit this newly dominant role. Because understanding Obama’s failures is impossible without understanding the nature of that role, Jarrett matters in a way unlike any prior presidential confidant, no matter how powerful or corrupt.

And because Obama’s failures have come at such terrible cost to a government of, by, and for the people, simply firing Valerie Jarrett will be all but meaningless, unless she is the last of her kind in Washington.