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Valerie Jarrett on Going to Extremes, and 'Seedy Chicago Politics'

5 years ago
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Valerie Jarrett is a match for her boss when it comes to a placid public demeanor. But she flashed her low-key version of high dudgeon in a year-end discussion with Politics Daily about pressure from the "extreme" left and right, and Sen. Lindsey Graham's charge that the White House engaged in "seedy Chicago politics" to get its health reform bill passed.

"It was definitely a cheap shot and completely unwarranted," Jarrett, one of several Chicagoans who came to Washington with President Obama, said of the South Carolina Republican's recent remark on CNN. "I think what people ought to do is to focus on how they can be constructive in their discourse and present fresh ideas for the president's consideration, and not lose focus on why they were all elected. They were elected to serve the people."

One of Jarrett's titles is Assistant to the President for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, but it's her other title -- senior adviser -- that better describes her role as close friend and counselor to Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Talking to Politics Daily's Jill Lawrence and Carl Cannon in her West Wing office, her Blackberry buzzing non-stop and her mind on flying home later that day for the holidays, Jarrett offered her take on a first year that started in economic tumult and ended in health reform tumult.

The administration has been buffeted from the right and the left, but she described a White House largely removed from the political storms as it calmly goes about its business of trying to create jobs, fix health care, improve education and curb global warming. A merged version of the House and Senate health reform bills, the culmination of a year of work, could reach Obama's desk early in 2010.

"What the president did this year was what seven presidents before him had been unable to do," Jarrett said. She ticked off elements of the prospective new health law -- insuring over 30 million more people, making care more affordable, making coverage available to people with pre-existing conditions, no more people dying because they didn't have insurance. "These are dramatic changes in how our country provides health care," she said. "That has been what has driven the president with such determination to make sure that he got this done early in his term."

The yearlong health battle culminated in a holiday season memorable for harsh rhetoric rather than the more customary goodwill. The Democrats' painful road to 60 votes produced a bill decried as socialism and intrusive government (from the right) and a toothless sellout to insurance companies (from the left). Jarrett's message to both sides: Get real, get rational, get the facts.

Jarrett praised New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a Nobel-winning economist, as "somebody who is held out as a world expert who actually has taken the time to understand what's in the bills and who was critical early on (but) is now supportive. That says something to me about people who take the time to be well reasoned. And when you listen to people say on the extremes what's in the bill and it's apparent that they have not actually read the bill . . . "

She interrupted herself to add: "Anyone who thinks that this is a boon for the insurance companies is just simply wrong. There's more insurance reform in both the House and Senate bills than we've ever seen before in Washington. The fact that you are increasing the number of people who are covered, and by increasing coverage that's considered an insurance company boon, is ridiculous! We shouldn't have a conversation about something like that. We should have a conversation focused on the facts."

We asked Jarrett to talk about Obama's reaction to the conflicting narratives from the right and the left (he's a socialist vs. he hasn't done anything for liberals or blacks). "The nature of being president of the United States is that you're an easy target for everybody," she said. Her longtime friend, she said, is "the perfect person for this moment in time because he doesn't get thrown off track by the emotional rhetoric. He really does continue to be disciplined and focused on the task at hand. And so he does not spend time pulling his hair out worrying about the extreme views. It's not constructive and it's not going to improve the quality of life of everyday people who are out there struggling.

"And so in the time that I see him in the course of the day I don't hear him complain about the extreme views. What I hear him say is what more can we do to create jobs. And that even temperament and ability to stay focused and not get thrown off course by either trying to play to either the left or the right is why I think he was elected. And he's doing the job he was elected to do."

The health debate took so long and produced so much conflict that it overshadowed almost everything else in 2009. When we mentioned this, Jarrett reminded us that Obama's day, as announced on his daily schedule, always begins with a briefing from his economic advisers. And she said his first question is always about job creation. "Health care has dominated the media. It has not dominated the president's agenda," she said, reeling off steps the administration has taken to stabilize banks, extend safety-net programs like unemployment benefits, help people restructure mortgages, help small businesses get credit and, of course, sink $787 billion into jobs and the economy through his stimulus or recovery bill.

Continuing high unemployment, along with votes many of them cast in favor of the stimulus bill, health reform, and an even more controversial climate-change bill, are creating jitters among House and Senate Democrats up for re-election next year in swing states and districts. With financial regulation, immigration reform and labor bills potentially on tap for 2010, and Republicans poised for at least a limited comeback, we asked Jarrett if the president's agenda would be to blame if some Democrats lose. She said "November's a long way away" but offered little comfort to nervous members beyond that.

"The president is going to do what he thinks is in the long-term best interests of our country . . . He is not going to be paralyzed by a fear of taking bold action," she said. "He's going to stay the course and he's comfortable that if he does his job well and his team executes, the American people will see the extraordinary change that he has brought. That's not going to happen in one year -- and particularly one year where you have absolutely the largest number of significant challenges that any president has ever faced coming into office."

Will it happen in two years, by November? Congressional Democrats can hope.

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