The Root Interview: Valerie Jarrett on Blacks and Obama

She is a senior adviser to the president and a trusted confidant. Here's what Jarrett told The Root about Obama's outreach to black voters, what his administration has done to help blacks thus far and what mistakes were made.

Valerie Jarrett (Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images)
Valerie Jarrett (Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images)

Lack of education is an enormous impediment to both the African-American and Latino communities. But I think you don’t have to describe it in racial terms to make it a compelling problem, because every employer that we speak with says that what’s most important is to have a work force that can compete globally. African Americans and Latinos make up a big portion of our work force, so it’s in everyone’s best interest that they have the best-possible education.

The United States is used to coming in at number one, and we want to do everything within our power to continue to come in number one. But our competition is now global competition. One way of bringing our country together is by saying that everyone in our country has to have an extraordinary education.

TR: A big debate within the black community is focused on what African Americans should rely on the government for, versus what African Americans should be personally responsible for. To what extent do you think minorities should look to the government for assistance?

VJ: The government has a responsibility to do certain things that the general public doesn’t do on its own. A good example of that is public education. We have a responsibility to educate our children. Public health — we have an obligation to make sure there’s a safety net in place so that people can receive affordable and quality health care.

We have an obligation to keep our children safe. The attorney general [Eric Holder] was just in Chicago last week, touring a program that’s trying to combat gang violence in the schools. We have an obligation to do everything we can to keep our neighborhoods safe. We have an obligation to keep our country safe, and so the Department of Homeland Security has certain responsibilities as well.

I do believe that parents, community leaders, religious institutions and businesses also have an obligation. I’m a parent, and teaching my daughter personal responsibility was very important. I wanted her to understand that I was going to provide her as much as I possibly could, but then she’s going to have to step up and be responsible, too.

I think that government should do what society as a whole can’t do individually. But I also believe that there has to be a component of personal responsibility as well, and that those two coupled together lead to a healthy society.

TR: President Obama’s approval ratings among African Americans are still sky high, but many experts are expecting poor African-American voter turnout in the midterm elections, despite all the black-voter outreach the White House has been doing. What’s the disconnect there?

VJ: I will start by saying that I don’t listen to experts. The only polling that really matters is the polling that happens on Election Day.

We need people to come out and vote regardless of whether [Obama] is on the ballot, because so much of what the Republicans have been saying is that if they gain control, they are going to try and reverse many of the programs that the president put in place that will benefit the black community.

They’ve said they would like to get rid of the health care bill; that means many black people will no longer have health insurance, or the benefits of the health program that make it affordable and available to anyone. They’ve said that they want to repeal financial regulatory reform, meaning we would lose this strong consumer protection and the safeguards against another economic meltdown.