Valerie Jarrett has stayed as others in the Obama administration have planned their departures to places such as Chicago or Harvard. None of the others have Jarrett's job history with Barack Obama. Now, with a tough mid-term election closing in, what advice does this senior White House adviser and assistant to the president have for the person she has been a friend to for 19 years, since before he was elected state senator in Illinois?
"To stay the course and to know that it will get better," she said in an interview Friday. "He's a student of history, so he knows that it's in times of great challenges when our country has been the most innovative and creative, and we look for new solutions and new opportunity. That's who we are; that's our international reputation as a country."
Jarrett joined the president on a trip to Wilmington, Del. Friday to campaign for Democratic Senate candidate Chris Coons -- and for the administration's agenda. "I think that momentum is building," she said. In Delaware, Obama called the Nov. 2 elections a "choice between our fears and our hopes." Later in the day, while sitting in her West Wing office, Jarrett echoed the president's message. "Elections are about choices," she said, adding that Republicans have, in this respect, "made the contrast easy for us."
That's a fair point, as even in state races, many GOP challengers -- along with some in his own party -- have taken issue with Obama's policies on health care, the economy, and even the president's personality. According to the polls
, that tactic is finding some success. And it's not clear at this stage in the campaign that Obama has been able to renew the bond he had with voters two years ago.
Jarrett has a different view of those policies, not to mention the man behind them, which is why she took time Friday to make the case for him -- and why the president is in campaign mode, traveling across the country to try to energize the voters who elected him in 2008. "It's very important to go out and remind people just how much progress we've made," Jarrett said. "That's challenging because we still have a long way to go."
While the president's shirt-sleeved appearances for Democratic candidates seem reminiscent of 2008, he is hard-pressed to make the connection he had with every-day Americans that he enjoyed during his own race. For one thing, he's not on the ballot himself.
"I think he is not a slick politician," Jarrett said. "He doesn't have the shtick, you know, the way a lot of politicians do. He's completely sincere and true and I think people are not used to seeing that in their politicians. So it's taking people a while to realize that he's actually a real person and he's not just trying to pretend and fool them and trick them into thinking he's something else. He's exactly who he is," she said. "He doesn't do the theater." (In 2008, his aides liked to call him "no drama, Obama.")
Jarrett also blamed some of the president's perceived problems on "the fact that there's a kind of toxicity in the language." She said the president "always keeps an even tone and ... he always looks for the better angels in people." That is not the general case in campaign 2010, she said. "The 24-hour news cycle and the reality TV that we all live with" adds to that toxic conversation. "It's always easier to scare people than to inform them."
"A lot of people are very frustrated and they're hurting," she said. "There's been a deep wound that was created before he became president, and now he's president and responsible for helping heal that wound. But it doesn't heal overnight."
"We've seen nine months of private sector job growth but it's not nearly where it needs to be." She said that reform in the banking and financial systems is giving companies more access to capital.
Jarrett called the president's domestic agenda "one of the most robust" of any president. She said the stimulus package provided a range of safety nets and unemployment insurance for people who lost jobs and health coverage. She said tax credits helped 95 percent of working families get "a little bit more money in their pockets." And she added to the list the infrastructure initiatives to create jobs and investment in new types of technology to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil. But, with the economy still dragging, the multi-billion dollar stimulus program has not proven to be a popular issue on the campaign trail.
"We are every single day challenging ourselves to make sure that we're doing everything we can to get this economy going again," Jarrett said. "And it requires both a fierce sense of urgency and patience."
Many of those hardest hit during tumultuous times have been African Americans
, whose votes -- studied and courted -- could be key in November, a point confirmed in recent analysis by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and other groups. Jarrett insisted that the Democratic Party has "not taken the African-American community for granted," adding that she preferred to view the White House agenda as benefiting everyone. "I don't think you have to look at it in racial terms to appreciate that it really strengthens the fabric of our entire country."
She emphasized the administration's education investments ("the path for the African American community out of poverty has to be through a good education"), health-care reform ("more African Americans are uninsured than any other group") and childhood nutrition programs, including a bill endorsed by Michelle Obama. "We have to make sure that the people who are the most left out are brought back in and are able to work and be healthy, (and) send their kids to school so that their children can lead better lives as adults," Jarrett said. "That's the American dream."
She's counting on voters who are benefiting from administration policies to close the enthusiasm gap. "When it gets close to election, people start to pay attention again." But it's still going to be tough, Jarrett concedes. "Most people are trying to keep a job, keep their children in school, work hard, retire with dignity," she said. "They're not watching cable 24 hours a day."
The one word that kept coming up -- unexpectedly -- in conversation with Jarrett was "optimism," as in the president's belief "in the resilience of the American people."
"We're not going to come in second to anybody, but we've got to get through this really tough time."
And is Jarrett planning her next move? "I love my job," she said. "I can't think of anything that would be a higher honor than doing exactly what I'm doing." Now it's left to Nov. 2 voters to judge the job performance of Jarrett and the president she serves, and decide if they agree with her advice to the president to "stay the course."