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Valerie Jarrett

A close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama from their early years together in Chicago, Jarrett is now a senior adviser to the president. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 20, 2012. (34:57)

A close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama from their early years together in Chicago, Jarrett is now a senior adviser to the president. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 20, 2012.

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    Barack and Michelle

    Let's start a little bit with Chicago. You're going to hire Michelle Obama, but you then meet Barack Obama at a dinner. Tell me a little bit about your first thoughts about this young man, because what happens eventually is that you really become very important to their lives. You sort of introduce them, to some extent, to Chicago politics. ...

    ... So 21 years ago this summer I met the president and the first lady. It was before they were married; they were engaged. And I was trying to recruit the first lady to come and join the mayor's office in Chicago, and a few days after our interview -- I offered her a job on the spot because she was so impressive. Wisely she said she wanted to think about it. And then she called me back and said, "Would you be willing to have dinner with my fiancé so that the three of us could talk about it?"

    Well, I still remember that dinner very vividly and how open they were about sharing their dreams for the future as they were beginning to build their life together. And they shared with me stories about how each of them were raised and what their values were and their character.

    Michelle talked about her father, who had MS [multiple sclerosis], who was very proud and worked hard every day, and he would get up early so that he could dress himself because he didn't want to accept help or be a burden on anyone, and how when she and her brother, Craig, went to college, even though they received scholarships, her dad insisted upon writing a check to pay for a portion of their tuition. And the president talked about being raised by a single mother and how hard it was to have had a father who abandoned him.

    And their life experiences were different, but yet they had the same core values, the same sense of moral justice, and also -- most importantly -- that to those who much is given, much is expected. And they both knew that they were talented and they were trying to figure out how to give back.

    That was really what our conversation was so long ago, and that's what I've observed them doing since that time, is figuring out how to give back.

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    Barack and Michelle

    One of the things that you had said previously in another article was that the president's father disappearing left a real hole in his life.

    Yes, it did.

    Explain what you meant.

    Well, it left a hole in his heart, I think, to feel abandoned by his father and to have not had the opportunity to have a father in his life, and to know that it was quite intentional that his father decided to leave him behind.

    And he was determined that he was going to be a good father, and he really modeled that after the first lady's father, who he had a chance to know before he passed away. He thought that Michelle's father was involved. He showed up; he made his children a priority; he took great pride in their accomplishments. He loved them unconditionally, and he provided them with all the support he could. And he wanted to make sure that when he had children, he provided that same kind of safety net for his children so that they could grow and flourish and do whatever else they want to do.

    What else did Michelle's family provide him? It seems that they filled a hole in his heart. They were also tied to the South Side. They also tied him, to some extent, to the church or to religion. Explain a little bit more about what he gained from Michelle's family.

    I think they were all very grounded, very down-to-earth. Michelle lived in the same neighborhood her entire life; the president traveled a great deal.

    Michelle's dad came home every night for dinner, something that the president has done since he's been in the White House quite deliberately, wanting to make sure that for the brief time that his children actually want to spend time with him and have dinner together, that they get to do that together.

    So I think that they really gave him an anchor that he hadn't had before to the community, to a sense of family, and through that anchor grew a deep sense of commitment to play his part in making the community better.

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    Obama's Ambition

    You become a real emissary to the president back then to power, Chicago power. And you were there for all the different steps that he takes in his political life. Why? What did you see in him?

    Oh, my goodness. I saw this amazingly talented young man who could be doing anything and who wanted to give back, and who was so interested in figuring out what was the right path to take where he could give back to the greatest degree.

    And let's face it: He could be a senior partner at a law firm anywhere in the country, but he chose this political life, and it was never for the short-term political goal of just simply getting elected; it was really more about what he could do once he was in office. So each step along the way I've watched him take on issues that he cared passionately about that are intended to improve society. And it's been an amazing journey, and I feel so privileged to have been able to share it with both of them.

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    Maybe you can also help us with the community organizing. Why was that important to him? What did he learn about himself and about power? Why was community organizing important?

    Well, remember that the community organizing that he did was around trying to help people who lost their jobs when the steel mills closed. So he really got into people's living rooms and kitchen tables, and he talked to them about their experiences. It gave him a deep appreciation of how hard it is on people to be unemployed through no fault of their own and what it did not just to the individual, but to the family.

    He was very frustrated by government and the role that government wasn't playing in the lives of these folks, and he saw himself as an advocate for those who couldn't advocate for themselves, but yet help them build a network where they could advocate.

    The voter registration work that he did, working with Catholic churches, same thing -- a sense of giving people this sense of empowerment through organizing. And I think it taught him how powerful ordinary people could [be] and how if they came together, they could do extraordinary things, and he observed that as a community organizer, and certainly it's what the theme of his campaign was in 2008: Together we are greater than we are as individuals.

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    We'll jump up a little bit to the [Rep.] Bobby Rush [D-Ill.] race. Why did he run? I think you were one of the people who suggested that maybe this wasn't the best race, but why did he ignore those suggestions? What was that all about?

    Well, I think he thought that he would be a great congressman. And one of my observations over the course of his political career is that he never has let the fear of failure get in the way of giving it a good try.

    I was also discouraging about him running for the U.S. Senate, and that proved to be quite wrong. I'm glad that he didn't just discount all the advice I've given him since then. My reason was that he just recently lost to Congressman Rush, so I was afraid, well, if you weren't able to win as a congressman, what makes you think you can win as a senator?

    He had a very logical reason for why he thought he could win, and he outlined it all for me. And then he said: "Look, if I'm not afraid of failing, why would you be afraid of my failure? So let's give it a try." And I think that willingness to take a risk -- a calculated risk, but a risk -- without worrying about the failure is what has enabled him to become the president of the United States.

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    Jarrett and Michelle planned to 'gang up' on Obama to keep him from running for the Senate

    For that Senate race, you and Michelle got together and had a breakfast with other people, and the idea was to convince him not to run.

    Yes, we were going to gang up on him, and we brought together some folks who we thought would help us in ganging up on him and convincing him not to. And in the course of a couple hour breakfast we went from being strongly against it to me agreeing to being the chair of his finance committee.

    So he was able to move both of us a great deal in a couple of hours, and a big piece of it is because he had thought it through. He had figured out who he needed to help support him, what had he learned from the congressional race against Bobby Rush that he would improve upon in this race, and just an absolute willingness to put it all on the line. And if he lost, well, then that would be OK, too.

    And was one of the things that he had figured out was that he had a new coalition that would back him that perhaps he could be more successful with?

    Well, he did have the endorsement of some very key people in Illinois who were willing to go out early and support him, and that was very different than the congressional race against Bobby Rush, where he didn't have that kind of core support.

    He thought he could bring together a diverse coalition, and that that would be important to win in a state like Illinois.

    And he was willing to do the work. He was willing to travel all over the state and pound on every single door and not take anything for granted. He was all in, and when you go all in like that and you're willing to do it, it's hard for your spouse and for your friends to say, well, they're not all in with you.

    One last thing on this neck of the woods is that he seemed to have -- so the Senate race, the coalition behind it was white, was black, was rich, was poor, was Jewish, was Christian.

    City, suburban, downstate. He spent a lot of time, when he was a state senator I should mention, really going downstate. And when you're from Chicago and you go downstate, it's big news. You'd see banner headlines: "Chicago state senator comes to X small city in Illinois."

    So he had done that while he was a state senator, so he was more of a known quantity when he ran for the U.S. Senate. And I think his willingness to roll up his sleeves early on and spend that time downstate led to his benefit during the campaign.

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    And how -- last thing on Rush is how did he take -- I mean, Rush basically painted him as an outsider, an overeducated guy who didn't belong to the community. How did he take that?

    I think he took it as that's politics, and he knew that the congressman had to come after him a certain way. I think it didn't hurt him, I think he just kind of said this is part of what goes along with the political process. And he made an effort to describe himself as who he is, and he really wasn't an outsider; he really was a part of the fabric of that community. And I think that over time -- obviously Congressman Rush is a big supporter of his now -- any wounds that there were have long since healed.

    And he learned.

    And he did learn. I would say that each step along the way in his career, he has learned and he has grown, just as we all hopefully do from life experiences.

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    The 2004 speech -- take us there just a little bit. It's a speech, it seems, that he was preparing his entire life for. Explain what your thoughts on that speech were, your involvement, and what you thought that night that he gave it.

    Well, it was one of the most powerful evenings of my life. I can remember sitting in the audience and just taking in every word.

    I think it did embody his philosophy of our country as it should be, and it was a hopeful vision. It was a vision of coming together, a sense of mutual responsibility toward one another -- I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper -- and what that fundamentally means.

    I think it got to the core of his vision for America. And it was truthful, and it was heartfelt, and I think the way it was received not just in our country but the world was the first early indicator that I had that, my goodness, his abilities are limitless.

    How does that morph into the 2008 campaign? This idea of bipartisanship, that idea of hope. Just explain the evolution and what that 2008 campaign then became.

    Well, I think it was really a continuation of the 2004 speech. All of the basic principles that he touched on in the 2004 speech were a part of the campaign. It was the sense again of this grassroots organization where ordinary people could come together and, with the odds stacked completely against you, do extraordinary things and accomplish just about anything coming together.

    I think that 2004 laid the foundation for his 2008 campaign, and the core principles and the way he touched not just the minds but the hearts of so many people around our country is what helped galvanize his 2008 race.

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    Life with the First Family

    Let's talk about the first lady and the family a bit. How easy or hard was it for the family to cope with this new role of being the first family? ...

    Well, first of all, I think they spent a lot of time talking about it in anticipation of the change, a lot of time where both the president and the first lady spoke to one another, but also including their children in the conversation.

    They were both very concerned about what the impact would be on their daughters as they pulled them out of a school that they had been in since nursery school, out of a neighborhood they had lived in their entire life, and put them in this bubble here in Washington.

    So, early on, the first lady, for example, made it her priority to really focus on the children. She didn't have a big agenda the first six months of her own. She just really wanted to make sure that transition went smoothly.

    The fact that her mom decided to come here and live with the family was very important. It provided another sense of stability and support that was so important for the children. Taking them to school and going back and forth with them when the first lady wasn't available was really important to the family.

    And I think because they thought it through ahead of time, it made the transition much smoother than it might have been. They talk to their children, and they make sure that their children feel a part of the process and that they can air any concerns that they have, so I think that the family's transition really went much more smoothly than anyone would have anticipated given the magnitude of the change. And part of why that happened as well is that they have worked very hard to keep a sense of normalcy in their children's lives.

    So the president, if you think about spending two years on the campaign trail, and then when he comes to the White House, in a sense, living above the store, and his commute is about 30 seconds, he's able to go home every day. And he told his team here in the White House: "As you think through my schedule, keep in mind that I'm going to be home by 6:30 to have dinner with my family. I can work after dinner, but this is something that's really important for me to do. They need that stability; they need that consistency; and it's something that I wasn't able to provide during the campaign." So I think it's worked very well for them all.

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    Talk a little bit, if you will, about Michelle's attitude toward Washington politics. She seems to have always been the one that sort of said, you know, "Are you sure you want to go down this route?," when it came after the Rush race or before the Rush race and the Senate race. Explain her thoughts about it and how she feels about the game of politics as played in Washington.

    Well, I think she recognizes the enormous potential of her husband being the president, the skills and the commitment and devotion to improving our country. And so she's supportive of him as president of the United States.

    I think it can be frustrating to her and to so many of us to see people who put the short-term political agenda ahead of actually serving the people. The first lady is completely devoted to public service, so when anything gets in the way of that public service, I think it's very frustrating for her.

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    Barack and Michelle
    Barack and Michelle's relationship

    Explain a little bit more her role as far as it comes -- I mean, the importance of the relationship to the president. ...

    Well, the relationship is one of fundamental respect and love. They are each other's best friend. They both derive strength from one another, and I think because they share a common sense of values, core values and vision for the country, it enables them to support one another.

    The first lady has carved out initiatives that she cares passionately about. She's been very intentional about issues she's taken on because she wants to make sure that not only does she care about it and is she willing to work really hard, but can she make a difference?

    So I think through that test she's become very interested in, for example, the Let's Move! initiative. That came from observing what she was doing with her own children in terms of nutrition and exercise and developing a sense that if parents had information about how to prepare healthy meals for their children -- everybody wants their children to be healthy. Sometimes they just don't have access to the information; sometimes they don't have access to the food. So working to get rid of food deserts around our country, where grocery stores will go in and provide affordable food, is a very important part of that Let's Move! initiative.

    The work that she and Dr. [Jill] Biden are doing for military families came out of her experience traveling around the country and meeting so many spouses of servicemen and -women who were struggling, and her appreciation that it isn't just that we owe those serving our country this enormous duty, but we owe their families a duty as well, and so she cares deeply about that.

    Each of her initiatives that she's taken on come out of these personal experiences that she has had, when she then is willing to throw herself completely into it.

    Does she involve herself in the president's day-to-day policy? No, she really doesn't. She's focusing on her issues.

    ... Is there another part of it where he can go to her and get a different point of view?

    She's a sounding board anytime he wants to use her as a sounding board. But I think that the distinction would be she's not looking over his shoulder on all of the different policy agenda items that he's put forth, but she is there as someone who he can confide in, someone who he trusts unconditionally, and someone who will give him an honest reaction from what an average person might think.

    And I think that part of what's unusual about this first couple is that it wasn't so long ago they were just ordinary Americans. I mean, eight years ago, seven years ago, they still had student loan debt. And the first lady always says, you know, you can't count on writing a best-seller book to pay off your student loan debt.

    So they are not far away from the struggles that so many Americans face, particularly in this tough economic climate. So that sense of understanding and appreciation for what people are going through is something that they share in common, and it enables her to be a very effective sounding board.

    He wakes up every single morning trying to figure out how to improve the quality of life for Americans, and so to have a spouse who shares that vision and that sense of priority gives him enormous strength.

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    Bipartisan Battles

    Bipartisanship is a very important part of what he promises, of what he hopes for.


    Is there a debate about how to accomplish that when you all get to Washington? ... If you can, talk a little bit about the thought about that wonderful phrase, "You campaign in poetry but govern in prose." What was the reality when it came to this ideal, this hope of bipartisan action?

    Let me begin by saying that this ideal was grounded in his experience as a state senator in Springfield. There, even as a very junior state senator, he was often sent to negotiate with the Republicans on all kinds of issues, and the reason why he was sent was that he was very good at figuring out what's that common ground.

    So his party leaders would say, "Senator, you go and negotiate with the Republicans, and let's figure out whether we can come up with a bipartisan package that's good for Illinois." He was extraordinarily successful at that.

    The difference, I think, when we came to Washington, was that in Illinois, you may have disagreed about ideology or policy, but everybody there actually wanted to improve the state of Illinois. What he encountered here in Washington was people who were willing to put our country's interests aside for their short-term political agenda, and rather than be willing to negotiate with him, they just simply said no.

    And if you look at the president's agenda over the last three and a half, almost four years, many of his initiatives that he put forward have been bipartisan, have been ones that historically had the support of the Republicans.

    Even the stimulus bill, the Recovery Act, his first piece of legislation he passed, a third of what was in there were tax cuts, and that's something that has always been supported by the Republican Party.

    So he came to the table with a bipartisan approach, but he was met with, "Let's just say no." And so it's hard for you to be bipartisan when the other party isn't willing to negotiate.

    How surprising was that to him?

    I think it was disappointing. I think it was disappointing, particularly given how high the stakes were, particularly because if you think back at the time when he became president, we were losing 750,000 jobs a month. We lost 4 million jobs in the last six months of the Bush administration. The financial systems were on the verge of collapse. Our auto industry was tanking, on collapse as well. Our economy was really hanging in the abyss here.

    With stakes that high, you would think that people would say, "All right, we have to come together; we have to come up with common solutions," and they didn't.

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    Bipartisan Battles

    Some opponents will say he was naive. Some people will say that Hillary Clinton made a couple speeches about how that's not the way Washington works. You know, when you go to Washington, basically, you have to play hardball. What's your response? What's the president's response to that attitude?

    I think if you look at his track record over the first term, he's gotten an awful lot done using his approach. He wasn't willing to come to Washington and just be like everybody else; he was determined to do it differently.

    And although he has reached out and tried very hard to be bipartisan, he's also been willing to go it alone when he couldn't get the kind of support he needed.

    If you think about comprehensive immigration reform, that's something that he talked about a great deal during the campaign, something that he was committed to during his first few years here -- and is still committed to doing -- but when it was clear that we couldn't even get support for the DREAM [Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors] Act, he was willing to do what he could by executive action.

    I think his view is, "Look, I'm going to try to be bipartisan; that's who I am; I think that's best for the country." We have a two-party system here. It reflects the values of our country, and people elected their representatives to come and recognize the fact that you can't just do it your way when you have a whole part of the country that might want to do it a different way.

    So I think that philosophy is what has driven him, and I don't think that it's naive at all. I think that great change can happen doing it that way. And if you look at where we were when the president took office compared to where our economy is now, compared to the fact that we have the Affordable Care Act passed, when you look at the fact that we were able to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, many of the challenges that he took on were ones where if he had done it the conventional way, it would never have gotten done.

    Is there a feeling that the power of the presidency is less so than what was expected? Is that the reality of how it works?

    I think he walked into this job with a very clear idea of how difficult it would be and the fact that the Washington establishment was extremely entrenched, and that it would be challenging.

    I think he was surprised, given the magnitude of our problems, that people weren't willing to step up to their responsibility fully and tackle those problems. But I think that, again, looking at everything he's accomplished, doing it his way worked really very effectively.

    And he's still willing to continue trying to reach out even though it has been clear over the last three and a half years, almost four years that their approach has been "Just say no." It hasn't changed him in any way.

    He still is determined to keep pushing, because he thinks that's what the American people want. He actually thinks that the American people want their representatives to work together and to do what's fair and what's balanced, where everybody in their country gets a fair shot and everybody plays by the same set of rules. I think that basic tenet of fairness is what the American people want. So he's here to do their bidding, to do what they elected him to do, and he will continue to do that as long as he's in office.

  14. Ψ ShareHow partisan battles have changed the president

    There's one quote in the [David] Maraniss book [Barack Obama: The Story] which is fascinating, which is that "Life only makes sense if, regardless of culture, race, religion and tribe, there is this commonality that we can reach out beyond our differences. And that's at the core of who I am." I guess the question becomes how the failures, how the difficulty of dealing with the Republicans on these issues affected that belief.  

    I think he's always been a pragmatist. That's how he was actually able to get things done in Springfield. He wasn't an idealist in Springfield. He couldn't have negotiated with the Senate president, [James] Peyton Philip, and been idealistic. He was pragmatic; it was always the art of the possible. He never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    I think that pragmatism came back with him here to the White House. I think what was disappointing was the Republicans' unwillingness to be pragmatic as well. They were just simply saying, "Let's not do anything."

    But when you think about it, when the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate says, "My most important priority is to make sure that the president doesn't get re-elected," that sends a pretty chilling signal.

    On the other hand, if he wins the second race, that can't be their objective anymore. And so he's hopeful that after this next race, if he's successful -- and I'm confident he will be -- that maybe they can break that deadlock, and the American people will send a very strong message about what they are expecting.

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    Obama's Core Nature

    This is a guy you have known very closely for many, many years. ... How have you seen him evolve? How have you seen him change? Is he the same guy that you saw way back when?

    I think his core personal qualities, leadership qualities, are the same. His character, his integrity, his moral compass that points toward true north, his sense of decency, compassion, humor -- all of that I think is basically the same.

    He has grown, as everybody grows over the course of 21 years. He's matured. I think he is more confident in his decision making today, obviously, than he was even when he first took office.

    I think it has been a steady evolution, but consistent with those very important core values that come from how he was raised by his single mom, from watching her struggle during a big part of his childhood, living with his grandparents for a period of time, seeing his grandmother train men in the bank who then leapfrogged over her for promotions. I think that's why the very first bill he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, in a sense a tribute to what his grandmother went through.

    So yes, he has grown. Yes, he has become more confident as everyone should be, but the basic, core values were embedded in him at a very early age, and that doesn't change.

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    The president said, 'And what's my name?'

    The health care story, of him turning to health care at a point when a lot of people said, "You know, this is not the direction to go; we have to deal with the economy," but he decided that he needed to do that. That is a fascinating story. ...

    Well, first of all, I would say this: The president, since day one, has always focused on the economy. The fact that he took on health care in addition to his focus on the economy did not in any way diminish the fact that he had almost daily meetings with his economic team, focusing on the economy. So I think we should keep in mind that while the press focused a lot on what was going on with the Affordable Care Act, the president never took his eye off the ball on the economy.

    On the Affordable Care Act, obviously it was an uphill battle all along, and there was a point of time after the midterms and after we had the town hall meetings, when Congress went on break in August, where you had all the talk about death panels and a lot of misinformation that was being spread around to scare people. So there was a period of time where the hill was looking steeper and steeper.

    There was one time we were in the Oval Office having a meeting with the president, and everyone on the team was very discouraged. His head of legislative affairs, Phil Schiliro, said, "Mr. President, unless you are feeling lucky, I just don't think we're going to get this done."

    And the president got up out of his chair and he walked over to his desk, and he looked out the window and he said, "Phil, where are we?" And Phil says, "We're in the Oval Office." And the president said, "And what's my name?" And he said, "Barack Obama." And he said: "Well, of course I'm feeling lucky. Now, get back to work and figure out how to get this passed."

    And I think his willingness to use humor with his team that was feeling totally demoralized, that there was no light at the end of this tunnel, and his ability to read the room and realize that with lightness and humor he could motivate us, and to tell us, "I'm not giving up," I think says a lot about the kind of leader he is. There is a determination and a commitment to not take his eye off what's good for the American people that has served him and our country well.

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    ObamacareObama's Motivation
    Inside the White House the night the health care bill passed

    If there's one story about this man that you know, that you don't think people get, understand, that motivates him to a second term, what is it?

    Well, I'll tell you a story. The night that the health care passed, we had figured out that the votes were there, and I actually went home to watch on television. And the president's assistant called and said, "The president wants everybody to come back to the White House and watch it together," and that means everybody from the most junior staff person who worked on it to the vice president. So everyone was together and watched the vote, and then he invited everybody up to the Truman Balcony to celebrate. And this is about midnight, 1:30, 1:00 in the morning.

    As the crowd started to weed out -- and the president was so happy that night, he was just totally joyful and in a great mood -- I asked him, you know, "How does this night compare to election night?," because election night was a warm evening, obviously; everyone was out in Grant Park in Chicago and watching from around the world.

    And he looked at me and said: "Valerie, there's just no comparison. Election night was just about getting us to a night like this." So he has never been motivated by the political victory in itself. He has always used politics as a means to improve the quality of life for people. And the Affordable Care Act was so important to him because he knew how dramatically it would change the lives of so many Americans. You know, his mom died at a very early age, in her early 50s, and he wondered whether if she had been diagnosed earlier, might there have been a treatment, and even if there hadn't been one for her, for so many people who die early because they don't get adequate health care.

    Or he thought about Sasha when she was very young, she was very ill, and I remember talking to him when Sasha was in the hospital, and he says: "I can't breathe. It's so hard to breathe when your child is sick." Well, anyone who has had a sick child knows that feeling. So Sasha got well very quickly, and she received excellent care, but there are just so many young children who don't receive that care.

    So his life experiences are really what has really motivated him to work so hard. And it's not the politics; it's not the fact that he wants to be president. It's the fact that he wanted to dramatically improve our health-care system. That's what I think has made him such a great leader.

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    Take us to that Grant Park moment, because you started talking about that. ... Tell me what you thought on that evening.

    Well, it was an amazing evening, and there was a wonderful spirit of hopefulness.

    But if you go back and read the president's speech, it was one that described what was in front of us, and it was a daunting situation that he inherited, ... that the president was light years ahead of the rest of us in recognizing the challenges that we faced and how hard this road would be, and he was really comfortable with taking on that task, but it was a daunting task.

    And I think when you look at where we were that night and the couple of months that followed, before he took office, our country really was at a pivotal moment.

    To have the kind of leader who brings those personal leadership qualities to bear and is able to guide us through one of the choppiest times in our nation's history, I think just really demonstrates what an effective leader he is.

    Has it been easy? No, it's been really, really hard. He always knew it would be hard. But his view is it's no harder on him than it is for so many people who are struggling around our country. And so it is with them in mind that he has the strength to get up every day and give it his absolute best.

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