Tough As Nails

The Valerie Jarrett I Know: How She Saved the Obama Campaign and Why She’s Indispensable

Her critics plainly do not know her. To work for Jarrett is to discover someone who listens and someone who expects nothing less than the very best.

With all of the recent conversation about Valerie Jarrett, there's an aspect of her work that still hasn't received much attention: her impact on the next generation of Washington leadership. This is a critically important role, and something I've seen firsthand.

In the second half of 2007, Valerie quite literally saved the Obama presidential campaign. We were hemorrhaging support in the late summer and fall of that year, and a sort of depression was settling in among some field and political staff in early primary states. We lagged far behind Hillary Clinton in many of those contests, even among black voters, who didn’t see the campaign making the types of decisions that indicated we wanted their support.

The last straw was when Congressman John Lewis—the Civil Rights legend—came out in support of Hillary Clinton in October 2007. That announcement dealt a huge blow to our morale internally and to the case that we made to minority voters externally. It was hard to talk about making history when the real history-makers like Lewis weren’t backing you.

One core problem was that our young, diverse campaign staff didn’t always feel heard by the powers that be. There were strategic recommendations, views on where the candidate should go, and political intelligence among these lower and middle ranks of staffers, but few places to send them. This resulted in missed opportunities, depressed morale—and declining poll numbers in states where the support of young people, African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities was key.

That’s when Valerie stepped in. She had functionally been a volunteer and an occasional advisor up to that point, but after the Lewis disaster it was clear she needed to take a larger role. So she more formally joined the ranks of the campaign’s senior leadership. And as soon as she became a regular presence at our Michigan Avenue headquarters, things started to change.

Young, black, Latino, women, and gay staffers felt like they had a listening ear and advocate in the upper tiers of the campaign—at times after making a quiet trip to Valerie’s office. The diversity of our endorsements started trending in the right direction, often after a phone call from Valerie to a key supporter. Then-Senator Obama began attending the types of base-rallying events that got people in the early states energized, often after a nudge from Valerie. And in states like South Carolina—which was so central to the campaign’s trajectory after the devastating loss in New Hampshire—Obama finally got his footing, and turned things around.

I saw all of this myself. Valerie brought a level of empathy and spirit to the hardened machinery of elections that we sorely needed in order to match our hopeful rhetoric with the reality of the campaign. Perhaps more importantly, she protected and elevated causes and voices—diverse voices—that would have otherwise never been heard. Valerie’s new role sometimes led to friction among existing campaign leadership, but the end result—a broad and deep coalition, and a winning campaign—was clearly worth it. She was an outsider who came inside, and she made the insiders that much better.

That’s exactly what Valerie has done in the White House, and quite frankly why some of the elders in this town are scared to death of her—if the articles in Politico and The New Republic published about her this past week are any indicator.

Valerie is still something of an outsider, although she has been in our nation’s capitol for a while now. Washington doesn’t long abide people that it can’t control, and Valerie is just a tad beyond the establishment’s reach. She owes few favors; she doesn’t need to rely on anyone for a media hit, consulting contract, or her next job. Whisper campaigns don’t diminish her status in the eyes of Obama—the two are friends, pure and simple, and the president has long since concluded that, outside sniping aside, Valerie has his best interests in mind. Perhaps most frustrating for the powers that be is that Valerie Jarrett has built her own base of support from the ground up—outside groups whose progressive causes she proudly champions, and young, influential staff whose voices she has empowered.

I’m one of those voices. After several years of working for Obama, I came into the White House a 26-year old department head charged with engaging the faith community on some pretty tough issues. At that age I had little leverage other than work ethic, intense loyalty to the president, and the strength of my ideas.

But that was enough for Valerie. I could bring concepts to her and have them considered on their merits. If they were well thought through, with a clear plan of execution, she was in, and ready to go to the mat.

It’s not just me. There is certainly an “Obama generation” of young leaders who came out of the 2008 campaign and have been inspired by the president to enter public service—but a large and growing subset of that crowd is a “Valerie Generation” as well. Washington is teeming with women, minorities, LGBT, disabled, and other brilliant staffers who might have had a tough time getting a shot in “This Town” if it weren’t for Valerie Jarrett believing in them. She helped place this new generation of leaders in roles of significance in the White House and broader administration. Washington is a heck of a lot better as a result, and will be for years to come.

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Don’t get me wrong—Valerie may be a mom-like figure to many of us, but she's still tough as nails. She’s the type of mom who will kick your tail and quickly tell you to put your big-boy pants on. She wakes up early, works until very late, starts meetings precisely on time and demands nothing short of excellence from her team. It can be a jarring experience being on the opposite side of a debate from Valerie; I’ve been there a few times, and just barely lived to tell the tale. But she respects grit and determination, in allies and opponents alike.

A lot of folks this week have responded to the absurd question, “What does Valerie Jarrett really do?” The immediate answer is clear: she promotes the administration’s policies among outside stakeholders, receives and incorporates feedback from those groups on the president’s agenda, and provides regular, high level strategic advice to the president himself and those around him. I have no idea why that job description is difficult to understand; in absence of any good reason, her gender and race have to come to mind.

But there’s a lesser-known part of her role that I have seen over the years and experienced myself. Valerie pours much of herself into those around her, and has created a generation of tough, smart, capable young leaders, people who will be in Washington long after she formally wraps up her time on Pennsylvania Avenue. Valerie isn't going anywhere, and her work will extend through those she has cultivated and inspired. That’s a very good thing.