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?
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.
The president is very quick to say that even though we've had nine straight months of private-sector job growth, we still have a sluggish economy. There's much more work to do, particularly in African-American communities, where the unemployment rate is higher. But we are certainly on the right track.
The Republicans would want to reverse what President Obama has accomplished. And what [Obama] is saying is come and vote in November, because that's what will enable me to move this country forward. That's the case he's making, and the reaction that we're seeing in the African-American community is good. So I'm not prepared to say that there will be a low turnout; I'm still very optimistic.
TR: The past 20 months have been hard.
VJ: The past 20 months have been very hard.
TR: What lessons has the administration gathered over that time that will shape how it governs for at least the next two years?
VJ: We realize now that the economy was in far worse shape when the president took office than was apparent to anyone. All of the economists who looked at where we were at the end of 2008 were surprised in 2009 by just how bad it was. The fact that in the first month [Obama] was in office, we were still losing 750,000-plus jobs per month tells you we were on a real downward spiral.
The depth of the recession was far worse than we expected, and as a result, it was going to take a lot longer to get out of this hole than anyone could have predicted. So perhaps we could have focused on managing expectations a little bit better, but hindsight is 20-20.
I talked to my parents, who lived through the Depression, about this, and everyone knew [then] it was just going to take a really long time to dig out of that hole. And the country came together, and we learned how resilient the American people are. People sacrificed, they pulled together and, through creativity and ingenuity, America bounced back. And we're going to do that again. And I think people have to have the confidence to know that if we work together, it can happen again.
But we also have to understand that you can't wave a magic wand and just reverse years of challenges overnight.
Many of the problems facing the African-American community were acute before this last recession. The recession made it worse, but there were neighborhoods all over this country where African Americans were struggling, long before Obama became president.
His initiatives are addressing some of the systemic challenges, from health care to education to focusing on job opportunities of the future. These problems were not addressed by prior administrations. Seven presidents tried to get health reform through Congress; President Obama got it done. That's a very big accomplishment.
What we all have to be cognizant of is that even as we are moving in a positive direction, people are still hurting. People are very frustrated, and I think part of what we are hoping is that, after the election, Republicans will come to the table and try to work with us more collaboratively than they have in the last two years. The president made it very clear on the day of his inauguration that we wanted to have that kind of partnership and collaborative relationship, and so far their strategy has been to turn the other way.
There's so much toxicity in the ether right now, and the president sets a very positive, constructive tone where he looks for the better angels in everyone. We hope that after the election, there's more of an appetite to work together in a constructive way going forward, because that's what's best for our country and everybody in it.
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.