Valerie Jarrett, who has known Barack Obama for nearly 20 years, is not only one of the president’s senior-most advisers but also one of his closest friends. Formerly a Chicago attorney, Jarrett, 53, co-chaired Obama’s transition team in 2008, and she now serves as the assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement. As Fortune magazine has confirmed, Jarrett is without question one of the most powerful women in Washington, D.C., and her reputation is one of fierce loyalty to her boss.
With just weeks left before the critical midterm elections, Jarrett spoke to The Root about the president’s African-American outreach, the White House agenda for people of color and what mistakes the administration has made in the past two years.
The Root: In the past, the Obama administration has operated under the belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” But with so much evidence showing that African Americans are being hurt disproportionately by the recession, is it time to focus directly on black poverty?
Valerie Jarrett: The way the president has described it to me is more along the lines of focusing on a new foundation for our country. And if you look at the major pieces of legislation that have moved through Congress in the last 21 months, they disproportionately do help the African-American community.
Let’s start with the Recovery Act — nearly $800 billion [provided for the legislation]. It provides tax relief to 95 percent of working families. It puts a few extra dollars in the pockets of the people who need it the most. To those who lost their jobs, it provided unemployment insurance and COBRA insurance.
Obviously, the unemployment rate in the African-American community is high, so having that safety net during these difficult times directly impacted the African-American community. The dollars in the Recovery Act that went for construction and infrastructure helped put a lot of people back to work.
That’s kind of the short-term stimulus that was provided through the Recovery Act, but also — very importantly — part of our new foundation is based on education. It’s not just creating better public schools, which is what Secretary [Arne] Duncan is focused on doing through [the grant program] Race to the Top, but also making sure that there are additional resources available to make the schools better. We’re also working to make sure college is affordable. What we’ve done is increase our funding to HBCUs. We’ve increased our funding for Pell Grants [to low-income college students].
Also, if you look at health care, who is disproportionately impacted because of health care disparities? The African-American community. Our additional resources for community health centers going into many urban areas disproportionately benefit the African-American community.
Making health care more affordable and more accessible is good. Not to mention that many people in the African-American community didn’t have any insurance, and now we have pathways to provide health insurance to everybody.
I’m taking the time to walk through all of this because I think that if you look at the president’s domestic agenda, it certainly does help the African-American community, and it provides a safety net to those who are most vulnerable. It’s a pretty robust domestic agenda. I think it compares very favorably to [that of] any president in my lifetime, and it will benefit the African-American community.
TR: In this paranoid and polarized political climate, do you think you can focus specifically on supporting the black community without conservative backlash?