In her new book, “Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward,” Valerie Jarrett, who served for eight years as a senior adviser to President Obama, recounts her early life and later experiences in the White House. Jarrett, who is sixty-two, was born in Iran to American parents. Her family moved to Chicago when she was a child, and she practiced law before entering city politics. In 1991, she hired Michelle Obama to work for the city’s mayor at the time, Richard Daley, and became a friend of the Obamas. Nearly thirty years later, she remains one of their closest political and personal confidantes. In addition to advising them, she currently serves as a board member of Lyft, and is a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Law School.
Jarrett’s book presents, unsurprisingly, a flattering portrait of President Obama and his measured approach to governing; she seems to be aiming to drive home the contrasts between him and his successor. I wanted to speak with Jarrett to get more of a sense of her time in the Obama Administration, and how Team Obama’s record on various issues—prosecuting Wall Street’s bad actors, regulating tech companies, trying to find common ground with recalcitrant Republicans—looks to her a few years later. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed the emerging Presidential field, how the next Democratic President should approach governing, and why so many of the Obama Administration’s most prominent members have gone to work for Big Tech.
How did your idea of political power change between when you arrived at the White House, in 2009, and when you finished serving, eight years later?
Let’s begin with some fundamentals that I think are the same. The power doesn’t come from the top down—it comes from the bottom up. One of the reasons why I’m glad that I started in local government is that you are very proximate to the people you serve. It’s not about you—it’s about them, and they remind you of that all the time. One of the many reasons why I was attracted to joining President Obama’s Administration is that he had that same perspective he had when he was a community organizer.
What I was unprepared for when I arrived in Washington—and it took me a good while to figure out—is that the Republicans were willing, in the middle of the worst economic crisis of our lifetime, to put their short-term political interests ahead of what was good for the country. When President Obama was a senator in Springfield, even a junior senator, he had this ability to work across the aisle. That was a strategy that he employed and that we all followed when we first arrived in Washington, and we hit a wall. I was not prepared for that, and that took some getting used to. He tried a thousand different ways to get them to come around.
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