Published September 13, 2012
Ever since Valerie Jarrett came to Washington four years ago her power in the Obama White House has sparked envy, anger and even charges that in the 21 years she has known the president she has become his "mother."
“I’m not that old,” Jarrett said to me recently in an interview at the Democrat’s convention in Charlotte.
But in her time in the Obama White House Jarrett has become a Washington legend for being as fiercely protective of the president as a mother is of her son. As one senior White House official recently told the New York Times, on the condition of anonymity that she out-ranks the chief of staff, cabinet officers and generals: “She is the single most influential person in the Obama White House.”
And she also has a staff of more than three dozen, according to the Times, to make her power felt in every corner of official Washington.
I personally know that influence and sharp-edged loyalty also extends to the First Lady, Michelle Obama.
When the President first took office, I told Bill O’Reilly that Mrs. Obama would hurt her husband if she became “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress.” Instead, I explained, she planned to defeat caricatures of her as an angry black woman by working on politically and racially safe issues like childhood obesity and support for military families.
Her aides told me Jarrett did not like that “Stokely Carmichael” remark. My requests to talk with Jarrett went nowhere.
I am not alone. Administration officials, political players, and donors have found her to be a bare-knuckle political brawler and someone whom you cross at your own peril. She has clashed with the big boys in the Chicago worlds of politics, government and business and prevailed nearly every time. She was the Deputy Chief of Staff to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and even chaired the Chicago Stock Exchange before joining Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
In Bob Woodward’s new book on the Obama White House, “The Price of Politics,” he tells the story of how Peter Orzag, Obama’s first budget director, was scolded by Jarrett. He had written a newspaper column critical of the president’s healthcare plan for not including reform of medical malpractice lawsuits. Jarrett’s answer was that Orzag was “disloyal,” to the President and a warning to him that he had “burned your bridges.”
Jarrett does few on-the-record interviews. But last week at the Democrat’s convention in Charlotte I asked one of her aides if she had time for on-camera interview with Fox News. I was thrilled when the aide got back to me and said, ‘yes.’
As Jarrett walked over to the Fox News studio space at the convention she had to stop frequently to shake hands and take pictures – more than most of the elected officials walking around. She was a political royalty at the convention.
When my friend, Fox News anchor Bret Baier, got up to welcome her I noticed there was no evidence of the Secret Service detail that the Times reported she insists on having protect her, in what is apparently a first for an aide to the president.
In the interview I asked Jarrett for permission to explore three of the tales of her legendary power.
Did she meet with Hillary Clinton early on about being vice president?
Her answer: "Not true and I'm glad you asked me that. Not true."
Did she urge the president to call off the Bin Laden raid three times?
“Not a single time, let alone three times. Never had a conversation with the president about the Bin Laden raid. Never once.”
Did she push out Bill Daley and Rahm Emanuel when they served as White House Chief of Staff?
“Of course not -- never once. They’re from Chicago. They’re old friends. I’ve known both of them as long as I’ve known the president."
Did she push the president’s hand in terms of requiring church affiliated institutions to offer birth control as part of their health insurance?
Here she equivocated -- “We know that that recommendation came from Kathleen Sebelius at the department of Health and Human Services. I support a woman’s right to choose. I think that we can do both, that we can give a woman the right to choose and we can also respect religious liberties. Those are two very important fundamental principles. Both can be accomplished and that’s what we did. “
Lastly, I asked her if she denied the billionaire and early Obama donor, George Soros, access to the president despite the fact that he gave so much money?
Jarrett responded “I actually met with George Soros with the president and had a very interesting conversation with him a couple of years ago. That’s like four or five things that you were going to ask me about instead of just three.”
Her aides were scrambling to the end the interview at that point. They berated my producer, Chase Haynes of "The Five," for what they saw as rough questioning. But I asked if I could ask another question and Jarrett, looking totally composed, even cool, agreed to go on.
I asked her about Vice President Biden’s controversial remark about putting “y’all back in chains,’ and charges that the Romney campaign is race-baiting by charging that the administration watered down welfare requirements to open the door to more entitlements for people who don’t work. Is the president open to charges that he is playing the race card?
“No, I’m not concerned about that at all…the president was requiring a tougher work requirement…so the question would be why is the Romney campaign saying something that is simply not true?”
Richard Nixon had H.R. Haldeman. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both had James Baker. George W. Bush had Karl Rove. President Obama once had political adviser David Axelrod – now working on his reelection campaign in Chicago.
Now the president’s tough guy is Jarrett.