You can be stylish and powerful, too. That’s Michelle’s advice.
—Barack Obama speaking to graduates at Barnard College, May 14, 2012
Every examination of a president should begin with the people and events that shaped him. In the case of Barack Obama, four strong-minded women, who intertwined their lives with his, were the most formative: his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham; his wife, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson; his mentor, Valerie Jarrett; and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Nancy Pelosi, the former House Speaker, also has a starring role, as we will see in chapter 2.
Each continues to play an important part in presidential decision making—though, in his mother’s case, an indirect and perhaps unconscious one.
Stanley Ann Dunham
Her first name was Stanley because her father wanted a boy.
Or perhaps, as Obama’s mother later said, she was named after a Bette Davis character that her mother liked.1 Like many details of Stanley Ann Dunham’s life, the truth is hard to pin down.
Barack Obama’s mother was born in Kansas and moved through a series of American suburbs, from the Midwest to the West and Northwest, throughout her childhood. She inherited her father’s gypsy ways.
Stanley Ann’s father, a difficult man who often forced the family to move, only stayed in one place for the years when he fought in World War II. He had no real career, but a string of unrelated jobs. By contrast, her mother later rose from bank clerk to executive—a role model for her young and increasingly independent daughter.
In high school, Stanley Ann was “bookish” and prone to disappear with fast-driving boys who were willing to drive from Washington State to California for a weekend lark. Obama, himself, would later become an avid reader with a penchant for mysterious adventures, such as his 1981 trip to Pakistan. It wasn’t an official college trip and was not connected to any course of study. He had no friends there and the war-torn, poor country was hardly a tourist destination. He likely went for the same whimsical reasons his mother took sudden and strange trips in her teens and twenties: a desire for dramatic personal adventure.
Swept up in the progressive causes of the early 1960s, Stanley Ann attended Russian language classes at the University of Hawaii, where she met a foreign student from Kenya. His name was Barack Obama. He was interested in Soviet economics, smoked a beloved pipe, and spoke with a British-colonial accent. She found him romantic and exotic.
Shortly after John F. Kennedy’s election, Stanley Ann and Barack Sr. conceived a baby, Barack Jr., but they never lived together.
The union didn’t last. Barack Sr. went on to study at Harvard and later married an American woman he met there. They settled in Nairobi and had several children together. His career as civil servant ended abruptly when he published an article in an African academic journal, in which he faulted Kenya’s revolutionary leader, Jomo Kenyatta, for failing to adopt a consistent Maoist line on economic policy. (Kenyatta was initially fonder of Soviet thinking, as Barack Obama Sr. had been in his university days. And, the new leader of an independent Kenya didn’t tolerate criticism.)
Stumbling drunkenly, Obama’s father was struck by a car on a crowded street in Kenya’s capital city. As a result of his injuries, a surgeon amputated both of his legs. Two decades later, the gifted student of languages and economics died penniless. He did not live to see his son’s rise.
Meanwhile, Stanley Ann had moved on and had married another foreign student whom she met at the University of Hawaii, Lolo Soetoro. Within a year, the new family had decamped to Indonesia. Barack Jr. was just six years old.2
* * *
On that island archipelago, Muslim radicals and Maoist revolutions clashed while seeking to topple Indonesia’s iron-fisted dictator.
There was a clash inside Obama, too. He simply didn’t fit in there. Native children taunted him and sometimes threw stones. He was new, and his grasp of their language was poor.
The few strangers he could speak to in English were American oil executives who would come to his adopted father’s house to discuss deals over dinner. His mother didn’t like them and said they were shallow and materialistic. While they lived in compounds with servants, hers was a small house on a busy street in a native neighborhood. Young Obama was not encouraged to befriend the children of the American executives. He grew without the company of his countrymen or his extended family.
No part of his identity was solidly locked in place. He was neither white nor black; neither American nor Asian nor African; neither Christian nor Muslim. His adoptive father didn’t practice his own religion (Islam) and his mother (nominally Christian) mocked all religions. Obama’s former teacher in Indonesia, Israella Pareira, said: “His mother was white, his father was Indonesian, and here was a black, chubby boy with curly hair. It was a big question mark for us.”3
And it was for him, too, as Obama later wrote.
The little guidance he received from his mother about Christianity was dismissive. First, he attended a Roman Catholic school, an experience he later recounted: “When it came time to pray, I would close my eyes, then peek around the room. Nothing happened. No angels descended. Just a parched old nun and thirty brown children, muttering words.”4 The irreligious views of his mother were stamped on him early, and firmly.
He then moved to a Muslim neighborhood and attended a Muslim school.5 Obama sometimes attended the local mosque with his stepfather. Some of the president’s critics, both Democrats and Republicans, have focused on the fact that Obama’s school registration card, at both the Catholic and Muslim schools in Indonesia, identified him as a “Muslim.” They miss something more important: Obama was given no distinctive religious identity, nothing to hold on to. “Muslim” was assumed by form-fillers because his father was Muslim and nearly everyone else in Indonesia was.
Life in Indonesia was always changing. Obama shared a home with tropical birds, monkeys, and small crocodiles. When one pet died, another of a different species replaced it. Nothing continued or endured, except his mother.
When not in the care of his mother or stepfather, a nanny cared for him—one who was every bit as exotic as Obama’s pets.6 He was openly gay, dated the local butcher, and played street volleyball with a team of transvestites named the Fantastic Dolls.7
Soon, the nanny was fired. Nothing lasted.
Still, Obama tried to make a home there, and imagined a larger life for himself. When a visitor asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “Oh, prime minister.”8
But that was not to be. Stanley Ann Dunham’s marriage to Soetoro dissolved after barely seven years. She never remarried.
Obama returned to the United States in 1971, but not to any sort of stability.9
* * *
Stanley Ann Dunham and young Barack Obama returned to Hawaii and, briefly, moved in with her parents. She earned a master’s degree, in anthropology, at the University of Hawaii in 1974. She wanted to write a dissertation about iron-working techniques of rural Indonesians, though she had no plans to teach, and the esoteric subject had no commercial applications.
Yet, to complete her PhD, she had to return to Indonesia—without her son, who was just entering his combustible teen years. She later said leaving her son was the single hardest thing she had ever done.10
Still, she wanted to be alone with her books and her thoughts. After an internal debate, she left.
* * *
This decision undoubtedly shaped young Barack Obama. The only constant in his ever-changing life, in which people and countries suddenly disappeared in the oval-shaped window of a jet plane, had been his mother. Now she, too, was gone. He was barely ten.
Dunham’s biographer was an enterprising New York Times contributor named Janny Scott. “When people learned that I was working on a book on the president’s mother the question I encountered most often was: ‘Do you like her?’ Sometimes people asked, ‘Was she nice?’ The line of questioning puzzled me: Why were these the first things people wanted me to know? Gradually, it became apparent that those questions were a way of approaching the subject of Ann’s decision to live apart from her child. They were followed by ruminations on how a mother could do such a thing. As many Americans see it, a mother belongs with her child, and no extenuating circumstances can explain the perversity of choosing to be elsewhere. Ann’s decision was a transgression that people thirty-five years later could neither understand nor forgive.”11
Did this intensify Obama’s inclination to stand apart from people? Strangely, his mother’s biographer doesn’t consider the question. But it undoubtedly did.
Stanley Ann’s other child is Barack’s half sister Maya. “It was one of those things where she [Stanley Ann] felt like, ‘Well, life is what it is.’ She gained a great deal” in terms of personal discovery and intellectual development. “The transition may have been difficult, but look…”12
So Obama learned to live in his own head. It was safer there.
* * *
In Hawaii, he lived with his grandparents, whom he called “Gramps” and “Toot,” from the fifth grade until he graduated from Punahou, a private prep school, eight years later.13
Obama learned early that connections matter. He later wrote that “Gramps” had given him some advice, that “the contacts I made at Punahou would last a lifetime, that I would move in charmed circles and have all the opportunities that he’d never had.”14
It was a vital lesson and one that he never forgot. He soon became a natural networker.
* * *
A devoted husband and father, the president has said that he wanted to raise his children to have the family life that he never had. He didn’t want to leave his family the way his mother left him. His mother-in-law, Marian Shields Robinson, lives in the White House; he makes a point of attending his daughters’ school functions, and enjoys vacations with them and Michelle; with rare exceptions, he has breakfast and dinner with his family every day.
Stanley Ann’s other legacy in his life is his preference for private reflection over public debates among his staff. Obama diligently studies the briefing books he is given—alone in a private, hideaway office. He has banned jokes in his presence unless he is the one telling them. He reminds his staff that he is “no-drama Obama,” that he dislikes disagreement among his staff and loathes any comment that implies criticism. The penchant for avoiding conflict—for leaving contentious issues to others—is a hallmark of his leadership style.
* * *
Obama admirer David Brooks wrote in The New York Times, a few months before the 2008 elections, “Obama lives apart. He put one foot in the institutions he rose through on his journey but never fully engaged.”
Obama learned that a certain aloofness could be combined with networking to give many different people the idea that he shared their views and values. Even ideological adversaries saw part of themselves reflected in his remarks. It was a valuable skill. When he was one of three remaining candidates for the presidency of the Harvard Law Review, the minority of conservative law students comprised a crucial swing voting bloc. They saw in Obama a willingness to listen and amend his views after hearing them out. They backed him and Obama won.
The other side of this trait is that it means that he can confide in almost no one, because opening up would break the spell that he has managed to cast over people with opposing views, making opponents believe he secretly agrees with each of them. The exceptions are his wife, Michelle, and his mentor, Valerie Jarrett.
While Valerie Jarrett’s official White House biography lists her as a “senior advisor and assistant to the president for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement,”15 it hides her true institutional importance and significance in Obama’s life.
In the press, longtime friends and advisors to Obama offer other descriptions, which are more personal but also seem to fall short: “First Friend,” “big sister,” “the other half of Obama’s brain,”16 “Barack’s secret weapon,” and even “a female version of Barack.”17 Consigliora is the term that might best capture Jarrett’s power, range, and trust.
The president himself says he talks to Jarrett several times a day and that he rarely makes a major decision without consulting her. While every Nixon has his Kissinger, one of the things that make Jarrett unique in presidential history is that she is also the first lady’s mentor. Indeed, she has guided the careers and lives of both Obamas for twenty years.
Barack Obama and Jarrett have a lot in common. Like him, she spent her childhood in a Muslim country far from home, both in miles and in culture. When the Obamas first met Jarrett, this point of commonality as well-traveled strangers among a less-mobile majority was the first building block in a life-changing relationship.
In 1991, Jarrett was working for Chicago mayor Richard Daley, which was the avenue that led her to the Obamas. Jarrett’s colleague Susan Sher handed her a letter from a young attorney named Michelle LaVaughn Robinson. Sher remembers saying to Jarrett something like, “This woman is no longer interested in being at her law firm. She wants to be in government and give back.”18 (Sher would later become first lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.) In fact, Michelle Robinson had complained repeatedly about the “boring” work given to first- and second-year associates in her law firm and sought a more interesting career. Jarrett, meanwhile, was on the hunt to recruit more African American women with prestigious degrees to join the Daley administration.
Jarrett phoned her immediately. “I was just unbelievably bowled over by how impressive she was,” Jarrett later said. She offered Michelle a job, sight unseen, over the phone. Michelle was more cautious. She said that she would not make a decision until Jarrett met her fiancé, Barack. They scheduled a dinner.
Walking between the two large wolf statues guarding the entrance to Le Loup Café on a warm Chicago evening in July 1991, Jarrett soon spotted Robinson and her slim companion. Michelle Robinson had shrewdly chosen the place for its mix of French and Middle Eastern cuisine, a sign of sophistication that she hoped would resonate with Jarrett. After Barack was introduced to Jarrett, he began to softly but persistently pepper her with questions. Jarrett spotted a political comer and, more importantly, discovered a kindred spirit.
They held surprisingly similar views about America’s place in the world. She told the perceptive New Yorker editor David Remnick, “Barack felt extraordinarily familiar. He and I share a view of where the United States fits in the world, which is often different from the view of people who have not traveled outside the United States as young children.”19 Jarrett added that she “had come to see the United States with greater objectivity as one country among many, rather than as the center of all wisdom and experience.”20 It was a view that Obama shared.
Jarrett had an edge on the worldly Obama in both global travel and social position. Unlike him, she was actually born abroad, in the ancient Silk Road city of Shiraz in southern Iran. The old caravan city is known for its distinctive carpets, crumbling mud-brick walls, green-domed mosques, and sharp business practices. The Jarretts lived in Iran until she was five. Throughout her childhood she would travel to Africa, Asia, and Europe. The family traveled widely as Jarrett’s father roamed the world to collect blood samples for his work on sickle-cell anemia and other blood disorders.21
Unlike Obama, Jarrett’s family hailed from the top of the African American meritocratic elite—a place both Obamas urgently wanted to vault themselves into. This made Jarrett’s friendship desirable and valuable. The Shah of Iran invited Jarrett’s father, Dr. James Bowman, the world-renowned expert in blood disorders, to open the Department of Pathology at the new Nemazee Hospital in 1955.22 Jarrett’s mother, Barbara Taylor, was the daughter of Robert Taylor, the first black graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first black chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority.23 Both sides of Jarrett’s family had strings of first African American achievements, and Jarrett herself was on her way to racking up a few more.
Jarrett’s family and social connections were formidable. When the family resettled in Chicago in 1962, her father became an assistant professor of pathology at the University of Chicago and ran the blood bank at the University of Chicago Medical Center, the hospital at which Jarrett would later hire Michelle Obama in a key administrative position.
As a teenager, Jarrett attended a private Ivy League feeder school, Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachusetts, and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Stanford University and a law degree from the University of Michigan. While the upper reaches of the preceding generation of African Americans had concentrated on science, medicine, and engineering, Jarrett, like many African Americans of her generation, gravitated to law, business, and politics. Returning to Chicago in 1981, Jarrett joined the top law firm of Sonnenschein, Carlin, Nath & Rosenthal.24
She married another African American aristocrat, Dr. William Robert Jarrett. The marriage ended after the birth of her daughter, Laura. The one time she discussed her marriage publicly, she summed up the experience to Don Terry of the Chicago Tribune without emotion, saying, “Married in 1983, separated in 1987, and divorced in 1988. Enough said.”25 There is nothing else on the public record about Jarrett’s first and only marriage. Her husband died a few years after the divorce, having said nothing about their union to the press.
Jarrett also told the Chicago Tribune that the birth of her daughter inspired her to make major professional changes. “I wanted to do something she’d be really proud of me for.”26 For Jarrett, that meant politics.
The Obamas, of course, were also interested in politics. And they shared a perspective on politics as a way of creating a personal identity while transforming the nation.
When Chicago elected its first-ever black mayor, Harold Washington, Jarrett quickly joined his administration. She hints that her corporate law firm associates disapproved of her shift into politics. While they may have thought she was recklessly giving up a promising career in the private sector, she made a point of telling The New York Times that the “nearly all-white firm” treated her departure with “polite silence.”27 Clearly, despite her many successes, she saw herself as a racial outsider. In his books, Obama takes a similar view.
Jarrett found her niche at City Hall. She had the skills and the influence to stay on through the changing of administrations and to join Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s team as deputy chief of staff. While Daley was a new Democrat, distinct from his father, Jarrett’s move required considerable dexterity. Daley’s father, as mayor, famously ordered the police to arrest countercultural protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The men in blue were equally unpopular among politically active members of the black community at the time because of law-enforcement practices they believed to be racist. Given the historical animosity between the new mayor’s family and Chicago’s black political class, some saw Jarrett’s transition as bold, shrewd, or ambitious. Still, she thrived.
In years following that fateful dinner with the Obamas, Jarrett’s power and influence would continue to grow—both in the wider world and in the lives of the Obamas. It was a start of an alliance that would propel the Obamas to the top of Chicago and Illinois politics, and later the nation’s. Jarrett was present at every pivotal moment in their political lives from that night forward.
Shortly after their dinner, Jarrett took control of downtown Chicago’s urban renewal and business development projects as commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development.28 Michelle Obama followed her, as one of her deputies. Jarrett became known as “the deal buster,” because she often used her near-absolute power over real-estate transactions involving city approval to quash multimillion-dollar development efforts.29 Cynics privately complained that Jarrett often seemed to kill deals in which friends or allies did not share an opportunity to profit. She thought the failed deals lacked a social conscience.
With that power came influence and, later, money. “She is like a god in Chicago, an icon,” said Adrienne Pitts, a lawyer at Michelle Obama’s former law firm, Sidley Austin.30 “She knows everyone in Chicago. She may be one of the most plugged-in people in the United States,” Obama advisor Anita Dunn said.31
Jarrett left the city government in 1995 for a role as CEO of The Habitat Company, which developed housing projects under city contracts.32 There she was paid an annual salary of $300,000 with another $550,000 in deferred compensation.33 In addition to what she earned at Habitat, Jarrett also served on for-profit boards of real estate and building-materials firms,34 pocketing another $346,000 per year.35
Soon she joined nearly every influential board in Chicago. She was first a member, then the chairman of the Chicago Stock Exchange, chairman of the Chicago Transit Board, vice chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago, director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, trustee of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago Medical Center.36 And she shared her ever-growing network with both Michelle and Barack Obama.
Like Obama, Jarrett trumpets her concern for the plight of the poor and shares a view of government as the principal uplifter of the downtrodden. She explained in September 2011: “We are working hard to lift people out of poverty and give them a better life, a footing, and that’s what government is supposed to do.”37 This was said as simply a fact, not a political opinion.
But her record as a manager of low-income housing tells a different story. As CEO of The Habitat Company, while her firm received tens of millions in government subsidies to manage public housing, many of the properties under her care became slums. The Boston Globe described one such Habitat property, Grove Parc (located in Obama’s Illinois state senate district), as a symbol of “the broader failures of giving public subsidies to private companies to build and manage affordable housing.”38 Grove Parc raises troubling questions about Jarrett’s management abilities, for the project was worse than the slums it replaced: “About ninety-nine of the units are vacant,” The Boston Globe reported, “many rendered uninhabitable by unfixed problems, such as collapsed roofs and fire damage. Mice scamper through the halls. Battered mailboxes hang open. Sewage backs up into kitchen sinks. In 2006, federal inspectors graded the condition of the complex an 11 on a 100-point scale—a score so bad the buildings now face demolition.”39
Indeed, Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, Jarrett’s former White House colleague and Obama’s chief of staff, announced in August 2011 that the city has received some $30.5 million in federal stimulus money to “revitalize” Grove Parc by tearing it down.40
Yet, in spite of Jarrett’s shoddy record as caretaker for the poor in his district and state, Obama never publicly criticized her either in his capacity as Illinois state senator or as U.S. senator. Perhaps he didn’t feel free to criticize her. After all, his wife’s job depended, in some measure, on Jarrett’s favor, as did his own in the state senate. Or perhaps he made his own personal triangulation between ambition and idealism. One thing his decision to remain silent unquestionably reveals is that Obama is not the blind idealist his critics like to imagine; rather, he is perfectly capable of real-world calculation.
Nor was Jarrett’s tenure as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago Medical Center an example of compassionate management. Working with Michelle Obama, who was hired as executive director of community outreach, Jarrett launched an initiative called the “South Side Health Collaborative.”41 This program “redirected” poor patients—those who were a profit drag on the medical center—to other hospitals and clinics. The program pushed hospital intake specialists to determine the personal finances of potential patients, after which they advised low-income patients to seek treatment elsewhere and then put them on a bus to that somewhere else.42
Critics call this “patient dumping.” The practice had been outlawed by the Emergency Medical Labor and Treatment Act during the Reagan years.43 Illegally dumping indigent patients on other hospitals or refusing transfers of poor patients from other hospitals can be profitable. For patients, the consequences can be death.
At the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Inspector General’s fraud database contains this entry from May 8, 2006:
The University of Chicago Hospitals (UCH), Illinois, agreed to pay $35,000 to resolve its liability for CMPs under the patient dumping statute. The OIG [Office of Inspector General] alleged that the hospital failed to accept an appropriate transfer of a sixty-one-year-old male who presented to another emergency department with a complaint of flank pain. UCH had specialized capabilities not available at the transferring hospital and allegedly refused to accept transfer after learning that the patient did not have insurance. UCH then later agreed to accept transfer of the patient only if he provided proof of funds in a bank account. The patient was transferred to [yet] another hospital where he died.44
In plain English, the hospital refused to take a patient unless he could prove that he had either the insurance or the cash to cover his likely hospital expenses. When he was turned away, he died.
Sadly, this was not an isolated, tragic case. As Chicago newspapers discovered, there were more like it. Many more indigent patients were forced to endure agonizing journeys to distant clinics and hospitals. Most of the victims were poor African Americans, who lived near the hospital that turned them away.
When the patient-dumping scandal erupted, Michelle Obama was executive director of community outreach at the hospital and Valerie Jarrett served on its board. While the two were not the sole decision makers involved, they played an essential part in what some euphemistically called a “management crisis.”
That dozens of critically ill people were turned away in the patient-dumping scandal did not make the Obamas question Jarrett. There was no public comment from Barack Obama, and Michelle Obama continued to work with her friend and mentor. They were in it together and apparently adopted a “see no evil” faith in Jarrett.
Far from doubting her, the Obamas’ predominant attitude toward Jarrett appears to be gratitude. They had much to be grateful for. Jarrett would find Michelle a series of jobs and help Barack rise from the University of Chicago Law School, where he was a part-time lecturer, to the Illinois State Senate, the U.S. Senate, and, ultimately, the White House.
She began by introducing Barack to powerful players in Chicago and encouraged him to earn some favors by registering black voters for Carol Moseley-Braun’s Senate campaign in 1992.
From voter registration drives to Hyde Park social circles, she helped him win election to the Illinois State Senate in 1995. Jarrett arranged for Obama to announce his candidacy for the state senate at the same Hyde Park hotel where Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, had announced his historic campaign.45
By 2000, Jarrett was indispensable to the Obamas. She tried to talk Barack out of running for a U.S. congressional seat. Her political advice was prescient. Bobby Rush, a Democrat with deep roots in the black and liberal communities, eventually won the seat. “I don’t think either of them made major decisions without talking to her,” Susan Sher said.46
When Obama first raised the idea of running for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Jarrett told him it was “a lousy idea.”47 Still he persisted and asked her to invite “friends” to her home to hear him out. Jarrett and Michelle had already talked and were determined to disabuse him of his reckless musings. Let him have his say and then we will have ours, Jarrett told Michelle Obama.
Barack Obama stood up to speak in Jarrett’s living room, knowing the stakes. If he couldn’t persuade Jarrett, his chances of raising money and winning endorsements would be slim. Equally important, Jarrett’s enthusiasm would be needed to overcome Michelle’s objections. His wife wanted him to forget electoral politics and hold a “normal” job that would allow him to spend more time at home.
He spoke calmly, slowly, and logically. He began with their shared ideals and principles, and then quickly pivoted to explain, in specific terms, why he could win the Democratic primary.
By the end, Jarrett was nodding. He had won her over. Michelle Obama changed her mind after talking to Jarrett in the kitchen.
Once again, Jarrett agreed to connect him with donors (one of whom was developer Tony Rezko, who was sentenced in November 2011 for extorting money from companies seeking help with state regulatory approvals).
At every turning point in Obama’s career, Jarrett was there to introduce, to solve or resolve, to console or confirm. She was in the room when Obama decided to run for president. And she was there on a warm summer night in July 2007 when Obama was afraid he was losing to Hillary Clinton.
His campaign was floundering and seemed out of control. Three key players were gaming it out: Obama, Jarrett, and Pete Rouse, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s former chief of staff, who had signed on to run Obama’s senate office after Daschle lost his seat in a surprise upset. Rouse’s role, still underappreciated by much of the media, was essential for transforming Obama from a freshman senator with no clout into a reasonable contender for the presidency in a few short years.
Obama looked to him for guidance. “Pete,” he said, “what can I do that I’m not doing?”
“Barack,” Rouse said firmly, “you need to take ownership of this campaign. You need to leave your comfort zone and directly manage your own campaign.”48
Obama seemed unsure. He didn’t like hands-on management. He preferred to set a strategic direction and have a chief of staff work with key personnel. Now he was hearing that he needed to personally take charge.
Eventually, he found a way to return to his aloof ways. Penny Pritzker, then Obama’s finance chairman, gave him the out he was looking for: “You need another smart, capable, really close advisor involved who could play a bridging role.”49 She meant, of course, Jarrett.
He knew she was right; he couldn’t manage alone. Obama began a nightly call with his senior staff and gave Jarrett a bigger role.
That role was essentially limitless, which soon caused trouble among the campaign staff. Barack Obama explained Jarrett’s role in the 2008 presidential campaign and, indirectly, in his own life: “She participates in every conversation we have in the campaign. She is involved in broad strategic decisions about our message and how we approach the campaign, and she’s involved in the details of managing the organization. She’s really a great utility player.”50
Jarrett soon became a source of friction and had frequent run-ins with campaign manager David Plouffe. Decisions made by the campaign staff would frequently be upended when Jarrett got involved. Still, Obama backed her without question. Rouse complained: “In the campaign, she was sort of outside and free-floating; it complicated things at times.”51 Classic Washington understatement.
Jarrett didn’t have an official title on the campaign, yet seemed to insert herself into every decision that interested her. This pattern would continue at the White House.
When Obama was elected president, campaign insiders angling for an administration role encouraged the idea that Jarrett should take Obama’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat. It seemed an ideal solution. She would be busy in the Senate and far from the White House. And she had the resources and Chicago connections to win and hold the seat.
Having heard enough stories from people who crossed swords with Jarrett during the campaign, Emanuel, like other White House insiders, tried to eliminate her as a potential rival by suggesting she take Obama’s vacated Senate seat.52 Perhaps she would take the bait. His gambit failed. Why be the most junior member of a hundred-person body when she could have a large say in running the powerful executive branch?
Yet Michelle Obama insisted that Jarrett have a White House role. During the presidential transition, Obama made his preference clear, telling Rahm Emanuel, whom he’d tapped to be his chief of staff, “I want her inside the White House.”53
When Emanuel showed up for a tour of the West Wing, he was annoyed to learn that Jarrett had gotten there first and had already put dibs on the relatively large suite of offices, formerly occupied by Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s “architect.”54 Did she plan a Rove-like role for herself, he wondered?
Pete Rouse suggested to Jarrett that she take on a specific and official function to avoid becoming a disruptive and amorphous presence, as many thought she had been during the campaign: “If you don’t have line responsibility, you tend to wander, swim outside your own lane, and get into other people’s work and irritate people and complicate things.”55 It was good advice.
But it was not advice she wanted to take. Still, Rouse’s words proved to be prescient.
Jarrett’s White House role is unprecedented. She meets privately with the president at least twice a day with no one else present. Her influence is enormous and wide-ranging. She wields informal power, like a first lady; scheduling power, like a chief of staff; and power over policy, like a special envoy. She has the unusual freedom to put herself in any meeting she chooses and to set the priorities as she sees fit. When The New York Times’s Robert Draper asked Obama if he “runs every decision past her,” the president answered immediately: “Yep. Absolutely.”56
Yes, Jarrett’s scope is as unlimited as it sounds. She has “wide latitude over how she spends her day”57 and that makes her “close to omniscient.”58
Though the highly anticipated Jarrett-Emanuel feud never materialized, Emanuel, not known for reticence, has had little positive to say about her. In fact, he pointedly has said almost nothing at all about her.
While White House staffers may be displeased, it is a measure of Jarrett’s influence that they dare not say so. A prominent Obama supporter and big-time donor told The Washington Post, on the condition of anonymity, of course: “I have always thought she was a liability. I’ve talked to people in the White House about it, and they have agreed with me, but they are scared to say anything.”59
White House staffers were wise to fear her retribution. Jarrett has sometimes consciously misused her power, using her unique access to manipulate and unsettle other staffers, particularly those whom she and Michelle Obama mistrust.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was one of the people in her crosshairs. She repeatedly said that the president “needed a less abrasive press secretary.”60 While some of Jarrett’s efforts to submarine Gibbs are well known, it is the postscript of one tale that reveals both her power and her mercurial streak.
Early on the morning of September 16, 2010, Robert Gibbs noticed the blinking red light on his BlackBerry. The news alert meant he was about to have a very tough day. Carla Bruni, the wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, had written a book that included some caustic remarks about first lady Michelle Obama. The English tabloids were having a field day. By 11 A.M. (EST), Gibbs had persuaded both the French and American governments to issue official denials—a real achievement given that he had to get the French government to contradict the wife of the French president. Gibbs thought it was a textbook case of responding inside the news cycle to stop a hurricane of a story before it landed on American shores. A victory, he thought.
The next day, Jarrett dropped in on Rahm Emanuel’s 7:30 A.M. staff meeting. She hinted that the first lady was not happy.
In her book The Obamas, Jodi Kantor reports what happened next:
All eyes turned to Gibbs. Emanuel grew alarmed at the expression on the press secretary’s face and reached out to take him by the hand, “don’t go there, Robert, don’t do it,” another aide later remembered him saying. Years of tension between Gibbs, Jarrett, and an absent Michelle Obama, exploded, the other aides watching in shock or staring down at the table.
“Fuck this, that’s not right, I’ve been killing myself on this, where’s this coming from?” he shouted. Months of anxiety about Michelle Obama and resentment of Jarrett’s curious role as senior adviser and First Friend came to a boil. “What is it she has concerns about? What did she say to you?”
Jarrett answered vaguely.
“What the fuck do you mean?” Gibbs said. “Did you ask her?”
Jarrett said something about the denial not being fast enough.
“Why is she talking to you about it? If she has a problem she should talk to me!”
“You shouldn’t talk that way,” Jarrett said.
It was Jarrett’s tone, calm to the point of condescension, that finally undid Gibbs, others said later. He shook with rage, so frustrated one colleague thought he was going to cry. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” he hurled back.
“The first lady would not believe you’re speaking this way,” Jarrett said, still composed.
“Then fuck her, too!” He rose and stormed out. The rest of the group sat stunned.
Emanuel grew very still for once. “Everyone knows Robert has done a really good job on this,” he said.61
What makes this story so revealing is what happened next, the key bit that hasn’t been so widely reported.
Gibbs quickly recovered himself and decided to mitigate the damage. He sent an e-mail to Michelle Obama’s other longtime Chicago friend, Susan Sher. Gibbs asked Sher for specifics about the first lady’s displeasure with his performance. Sher said that Michelle Obama had no complaint. Gibbs was dismayed. “Valerie made the story up. Valerie went into the meeting to convey what Michelle was angry about when they actually hadn’t talked about it.”62
Still, Gibbs’s career at the White House was effectively over and staffers had new reasons to fear Jarrett.
That isn’t the only example of Jarrett’s misuse of her extraordinary access. Jarrett’s control of the president’s agenda has led to questionable use of his time at taxpayer expense. After weeks of saying he would not get involved, Obama finally yielded to Jarrett’s pleas to fly to Copenhagen to personally pitch Chicago as host city for the 2016 Olympic games.63 Critics complained that the president’s agenda should have centered on the country’s challenges: the then-9.8 percent unemployment rate, the raging health care reform debate, escalating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Iran’s successful test of a nuclear-capable mid-range missile.64
No matter. Lobbying for Chicago to be chosen as host city for the Olympics was a major focus for an administration filled with Chicagoans and it was a top priority for Jarrett, who was in charge of the Olympic initiative. Jarrett made sure that she kept the issue on the front burner with her daily meetings with the president, as she told Bloomberg News: “We talk about it every single morning together as we meet.”65
For Chicago, which had never hosted the Olympics, winning the bid would be a coup. Jarrett was especially interested because many of the planned Olympic events and the Olympic “village,” which would house the world’s best athletes, would be located in the predominantly black South Side of Chicago.
Jarrett saw a big role for herself in the 2016 Olympics. She admitted to an Olympics movement newsletter, Around the Rings, that she would be personally involved in the Olympics, despite her commitments in the administration: “I will look forward to working with the Chicago 2016 team, and coordinating at the federal level.”66
Jarrett was aboard Air Force One as it carried the president and a delegation of Olympic athletes, cabinet secretaries, Chicago luminaries, corporate leaders—and even Oprah Winfrey—to woo International Olympic Committee members.67 Jarrett predicted victory, adding that when Michelle Obama finished her pitch, “there won’t be a dry eye in the room.”68
It didn’t work. The city of Chicago came in dead last in the balloting and was eliminated in the first round, winning just eighteen of ninety-four votes.69
It was the first time an American president was directly and personally involved in an Olympic bid, and it illustrates Jarrett’s unusual power with the Obamas.
More importantly, this humiliating snub illustrates the pitfalls of investing the prestige of the presidency in such high-risk ventures. Usually arms control summits and other international presidential trips are carefully negotiated before the president departs and a clear achievement is waiting in the wings for the president to trot on stage and trumpet. In this case, it was a jump ball. Jarrett put the president in a situation in which victory would look routine and defeat would be devastating.
Make no mistake: It was a defeat of Olympic proportions.
Yet, strangely, the Obamas and Jarrett remain as close as ever. She remains President Obama’s most powerful advisor—the only administration official he talks to every day, usually alone. Jarrett also played a large and unreported role in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, in the health care reform battle plan, and on virtually every major issue facing the Obama administration.
One West Wing staffer, with a sense of history, compares Jarrett to President Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith. When he lapsed into an illness, she controlled access to the president and brought out messages from him. “People say that she pretty much ran the government for a year, while Valerie has been doing it for four.”70
Sitting across from Valerie Jarrett at the wolf-themed Le Loup Café in 1991, and alongside her then-fiancé Barack Obama, Michelle Robinson had traveled further than either of them, if you measure in money, not miles. She had never lived outside the United States and indeed had lived precious few years outside of her native Chicago. But she had climbed from one of the poorest sections of Chicago’s South Side to one of the richest sections, known as Hyde Park.
It was a very American story. The Robinsons lived in a small apartment, up a narrow staircase on the top floor of a two-family bungalow, near public housing projects and defunct plants. The nighttime sounds in the overwhelmingly black neighborhood alternated between crickets, cars, and police sirens. Michelle and her brother, Craig, shared a room, separated only by a sheet that hung across the middle.71 Both of them eventually went to Princeton.
Her parents worked hard, in different ways, to prepare their children to live a better life than they had.
Her father, Fraser Robinson, worked at a city water treatment plant and was active in local Democratic Party politics. Nearly every night of Michelle’s childhood, her father sat at the head of table as the family shared dinner together. He exuded a quiet strength that Michelle would later insist that her husband learn to embody.
Her mother, Marian, quit her job as a secretary at Spiegel’s, a local chain store, to stay home with Michelle and Craig, and she urged them on academically. Money was tight, but the family managed. With workbooks and cassette tapes, she had both of her children reading by age four. The homework didn’t stop when Michelle and Craig attended a nearby public school; the Robinson children earned higher marks than other students, who came from less demanding homes. As a result, both children were allowed to skip second grade.72
While Michelle worked hard in school, she never thought of her high-crime neighborhood as hazardous. “We knew the gang-bangers—my brother played basketball in the park. Home never feels dangerous.”73
In 1981, she arrived at the Princeton campus and into another world: Gothic stone and grillwork, a march of tall trees, a dorm window overlooking a tranquil quadrangle. On a later visit, her father drove through the night to see his children. He was then in a wheelchair, which promptly sank into the gravel of the parking lot. He ground forward, uncomplaining. He was proud of her finding a place in that alien world.
She was one of ninety-four black students at Princeton, a world within a world. While she had worked very hard to make it to the Ivy League, she did not join any of its unique social institutions. Princeton is famous for its “eating clubs,” private student-run associations that do not select on the basis of race, sex, or creed.
Curiously, Michelle instead immersed herself mainly in campus organizations that defined themselves on a purely racial basis, including the Organization of Black Unity and the Black Thoughts Table. She spent a lot of time at seminars at the African American Studies department, and much of her free time at the Third World Center.74 While such self-segregation was typical of black students at elite schools in the 1980s, her pattern of scholarly and social activities suggests that she shared a feeling of isolation from students of other backgrounds at Princeton. Her thesis, written in her senior year, suggests that her sense of exclusion continued throughout her entire time in college. She wrote about the pain of being always a stranger in what she saw as a white world: “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘blackness’ than ever before. I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second.”75
In her thesis, she was deeply skeptical of integration. “Many ‘integrated Blacks’ have lost touch with the Black culture in their attempts to become adjusted and comfortable in their new culture—the White culture. Some of these Blacks are no longer able to enjoy the qualities which make Black culture so unique or are unable to openly share their culture with other Blacks because they have become so far removed from these experiences and, in some instances, ashamed of them as a result of their integration.”76
After interviewing dozens of black Princeton graduates, she was disappointed. “I hoped that these findings would help me conclude that despite the high degree of identification with Whites as a result of the educational and occupational path that Black Princeton alumni follow, the alumni would still maintain a certain level of identification with the Black community. However, these findings do not support this possibility.”77
She concludes that integration may not be desirable for her: “further integration and/or assimilation into a White cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant.”78
While she may have sincerely felt the pain and alienation evident in her thesis, critics tend to miss the intellectual conformism it suggests. Quite simply, professors at elite liberal-arts universities were rewarding theses like hers with high marks in the 1980s. It was the kind of thing that they were looking for: skepticism about the benefits of integration, the loss of identity when joining the mainstream, and so on. She wrote her thesis less than a generation after landmark civil-rights legislation had transformed the country, and her instructors liked to point out that the transformation was still incomplete.
It is one of the oddities of American life that concerns about racism crested on liberal campuses almost two decades after the tide of intolerance began to ebb in society as a whole. In short, beyond Michelle’s personal feelings of estrangement, it is risky to draw too many conclusions from a college thesis she wrote in 1985.
She was quickly admitted to Harvard Law School, where she played a significant role in black student groups.79 Though she may not yet have been the bridge-builder that her future husband aimed to be, she graduated with honors.
Upon graduation, Michelle joined the mostly white Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. But she was not intimidated. Andrew Goldstein, a fellow associate at the firm, said, “You didn’t want to underestimate her.” In disagreements, he said, she didn’t hesitate to “push back.”80
Much of her pushing back was directed against her direct supervisor, Quincy White: “She wanted significant responsibility right away and was not afraid to object if she wasn’t getting what she felt she deserved.”81 He recounted to a Washington Post reporter that Michelle was “perennially dissatisfied” and frustrated by the hard work and “tedium” that first- and second-year law associates faced.82 He tried giving her “glamorous assignments” like working for the legendary promoter Don King, but it failed to satisfy her. Did she work so hard for so long to be a glorified clerk?
White said: “She at one point went over my head and complained that I wasn’t giving her enough interesting stuff, and the [human resources] person came down to my office and said, ‘Basically she’s complaining that she’s being treated like she’s a second-year associate,’ and we agreed that she was a second-year associate. I had eight or nine other associates, and I couldn’t start treating one of them a lot better.”83
Quincy White is now dead and cannot elaborate. And, of course, Michelle Robinson’s feelings were not unique. Many people in the early parts of their legal careers find the work to be a dull chore.
In the end, White eventually gave up. “I couldn’t give her something that would meet her sense of ambition to change the world.”84
While Michelle worried and wondered about her future, her life began changing around her. Her father died in 1991. She remained exceptionally close to her mother—unusually so for an adult woman, one friend said—and took her father’s death very hard. A cornerstone of her foundation had been removed and the whole idea of her mission in life began to shift. She began to look at familiar things in new ways as she reconsidered her life. “I looked out at my neighborhood and sort of had an epiphany that I had to bring my skills to bear in the place that made me. I wanted to have a career motivated by passion and not just money.”85
She began to think seriously about leaving Sidley Austin and the for-profit world.
Yet the law firm proved to be a turning point in two important ways: It persuaded her to seek a career outside of law, and it introduced her to a summer associate whom she was asked to mentor, Barack Obama.
At first, she wasn’t impressed. “I had dated a lot of brothers who had this kind of reputation coming in, so I figured he was one of these smooth brothers who could talk straight and impress people. So we had lunch, and he had this bad sport jacket and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and I thought, ‘Oh, here you go. Here’s this good-looking, smooth-talking guy. I’ve been down this road before.’”86
Over time, he won her over with his community activism. It was the kind of thing she had been thinking about doing in her own neighborhood. During a February 2008 CBS Evening News segment, she talked about Obama arriving in her life just when she was weighing her options. “He took me to a training that he was doing. And there were mostly single parent mothers, mostly African Americans on the South Side.” It was that experience that captivated her: “And I knew then, there’s something different about this guy.”
Michelle was inspired. Barack reminded her of her idealistic school days: “It was impressive. And his message was moving. I mean, it touched me.”
Obama came into her life just as she was rethinking it. “It made me think differently about what am I doing with my life. And how am I adding to the notion of getting us to the world as it should be? Am I doing it in my law firm? You know? So he made me think in ways that I hadn’t before.”87
Eventually, she brought him home to meet her family. “He was very, very low-key,” Craig said. The two played basketball together and her brother reported back that Barack wasn’t a show-off. Craig said, “I was thinking: ‘Nice guy. Too bad he won’t last.’”
It did last, and within a year she was the one pushing for marriage. He resisted. He hated making a life-altering decision, any move that would foreclose options. Instead, he talked about the meaninglessness of marriage as an institution and that love is all that mattered. At that point, he wasn’t sure about marriage: His mother had married and divorced twice.
In the end, Michelle’s pressure worked. The story of his 1991 proposal offers insight into Obama’s leadership style. Over dinner, he repeated his earlier speeches about marriage. She became frustrated; it was the same old story.
Then he produced the ring. She was completely surprised.
This suggests two things about Obama’s leadership style: He can be doctrinaire, resisting logical next steps, preferring to stay in his comfort zone; and she (and a very few others) can sway him to change his mind.
They began to build a life together. Sometimes she would push him, sometimes he would tug her. But they were always a team, just like her parents were. It was exactly their shared, impatient ambition that led them to that 1991 dinner with Valerie Jarrett.
That year began Michelle’s transformation. Her father died, she became engaged to Barack Obama, she left the law firm, and, with the help of Valerie Jarrett, she became assistant commissioner of planning and development for the city of Chicago. By the end of the year, she was Michelle Obama.
From then on, Jarrett played a major role in Michelle Obama’s career in both government and the nonprofit sectors. From city hall, she became executive director of Public Allies, a liberal nonprofit, and then associate dean of student services at the University of Chicago. Later, until Obama was sworn in as president, she served as executive director for community affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center.88 She also sat on numerous boards, including the Board of Directors for TreeHouse Foods,89 the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.90
Thanks to Jarrett, Michelle Obama’s public-spirited career also paid well. By 2006, the Obamas had a declared joint income of $991,296.91 During every year of their marriage, Michelle earned more than Barack—until he was sworn in as president and she stopped working in Chicago.
The transition to first lady was difficult for her. Initially she didn’t want to join her husband at the White House until June 2009, when her daughters had completed the school year in Chicago. There were other reasons: She had spent virtually all of her life in Chicago and didn’t want to leave her mother and her friends. When Barack agreed to let her bring her mother to live with them at the White House, she still wasn’t sure. For nearly a month after he won the 2008 election, she was still hinting to friends and government officials that she wanted to stay in Chicago. She had to be persuaded that the presidency wasn’t a job like being a U.S. senator or state senator; she would actually hurt Barack politically if she didn’t move into the White House with him on Inauguration Day.
Some of her Chicago friendships were falling apart: She was sensitive to any hint of exploitation, and certain old friends, she felt, had crossed the line, using her name to try to get jobs. Like her husband, her social circle shrank shortly after she moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Used to being an executive in her own right, she found the traditional role of first lady to be stuffy and limited. As one aide put it, “She was very frustrated that so much of the strategy was president-driven. There was no consideration of how she fit in the broader Obama narrative.”92
Hillary Clinton also found the role difficult, but it doesn’t appear the two ever discussed the tribulations of being first lady. This is surprising, given that Hillary Clinton is often in the White House as secretary of state and one of only two living former first ladies from the Democratic Party. (Rosalynn Carter is the other.) Nor did Michelle Obama ever reach out to Laura Bush, who was friendly and gave her an extensive tour of the residence in January 2009, a few weeks before Inauguration Day. Instead, she decided to figure the job out on her own.
That isn’t easy to do. The first lady may be the last of the eighteenth-century ceremonial posts remaining in American life. The transition for any modern woman can be surprisingly difficult. The closest equivalent may be found in British culture: Becoming first lady is like becoming Princess of Wales. Diana Spencer, a modern woman, famously found the transition difficult—as did those around her.
To compound matters, the role seems alien to a woman used to being an executive. A first lady’s job description is actually a series of ancient and courteous virtues: modest, attractive, enterprising, charitable, and, above all, apolitical. A first lady can skirt the corners of politics by charming an ambassador’s or a senator’s wife, or by taking up a high-minded cause (promoting literacy as Mrs. Bush did, fighting drug dependency as Mrs. Reagan did, combating litter and billboards as Mrs. Johnson did). But for wives who played active roles in their husbands’ political campaigns, as Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Obama did, the transition to political Siberia can leave them cold. When they use their political experience to make political decisions, however, the public tends to react negatively—as Hillary Clinton learned when she worked on what critics derided as “HillaryCare,” the Clinton administration’s attempt to establish a national health care system.
Michelle Obama grew increasingly frustrated with her role’s limitations. When touring a public school, a little girl told her that she wanted to be first lady one day. Her response, in earshot of the press, was caustic: “Doesn’t pay much.”93
Soon she became a political target for her costly clothes and trips. This, too, tells us something about President Obama’s leadership style: He appears either unable to anticipate the predictable reaction of the press or unable to rein in the first lady.
During a 2009 visit to France, the U.S. Embassy was asked to arrange a shopping outing for Michelle and her daughters on a Sunday, a day when French law requires stores to remain closed. The press was quick to notice that she chose to shop at expensive stores. One store she visited was Bonpoint, which sells clothes for children, where a small girl’s sundress goes for more than $250.94 With U.S. unemployment then approaching 10 percent, the move seemed tone-deaf.
Michelle Obama’s use of designer clothes for magazine shoots also drew fire, as did her wardrobe for her Hawaii vacation during the 2011 Christmas holiday, which garnered nearly as much media coverage as America’s sputtering economy and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Whatever the merits of these stories, expecting the press not to cover them is unrealistic in any president.
Her trips also sparked controversy. To keep a promise to the first lady, the president took her to New York for dinner and a Broadway show. The famous “date night” in New York drew fawning coverage at first. “Even cooler-than-thou New York allowed itself a bit of excitement over their arrival,” The New York Times wrote.95
The backlash came quickly. Tallying the cost for crew and fuel for three airplanes, secret service, police overtime, street closures, and other expenses, the total was estimated to range as high as $250,000.96 Again, the president seemed unable to say no to his wife or to develop a strategy for a predictable press response: “The notion that I just couldn’t take my wife out on a date without it being a political issue was not something I was happy with.”97
The controversial trips continued. During their first summer vacation in 2009 on Martha’s Vineyard, the Obamas stayed at the Blue Heron Farm, which rents for upward of $50,000 per week.98 That Michelle and her daughters flew up separately added to the cost for taxpayers—a detail that cable-news outlets soon focused on.
Then there was Michelle’s multimillion-dollar trip to Spain with her daughters and girlfriends, which reignited media fascination with her clothes and travel budgets. When she stepped out of her $2,500-a-day hotel room in the Ritz-Carlton’s Hotel Villa Padierna, female reporters noted that she was wearing a top by Jean Paul Gaultier. Though the White House was at pains to explain the trip was private and that Michelle was covering her own expenses, the security expenses—costing far in excess of her personal travel expenses—were covered with taxpayer money.99
And, in June 2011, Michelle took family and friends on a “goodwill mission” to South Africa, which was counterproductive diplomatically since the South African president refused to meet the first lady. The cost of the air travel alone was more than $400,000.100
Suddenly Michelle Obama was becoming a political liability.
In stepped Valerie Jarrett with a makeover campaign. Jarrett’s approach was simple and somewhat effective: a montage of typical, family-friendly first lady activities. Jarrett made arrangements for Michelle Obama to co-host The View in the hope of winning over women. Then came a cuddling Michelle and Barack on the cover of Us Weekly and a friendly profile in The New York Times.
Next, Jarrett urged her to take on a cause. Together they selected supporting military families, with Michelle Obama making appearances and speeches on their behalf.101
Meanwhile, President Obama stayed in the background, neither defending his wife in public nor urging her to change in private. As his wife was maligned, he remained aloof.
Hillary Clinton struggled with her role from her early years. In a series of letters she wrote to high school friend John Peavoy, while he was at Princeton and she was at Wellesley, she writes about trying on different identities, like hats or hairstyles. “Since Xmas vacation, I’ve gone through three-and-a-half metamorphoses and am beginning to feel as though there is a smorgasbord of personalities spread before me. So far, I’ve used alienated academic, involved pseudohippie, educational and social reformer, and one half of withdrawn simplicity.” This is Hillary Clinton, as we now know her: keenly observant, self-analytical, changing as circumstances require. Even in her student days in the 1960s, she had a sense of her destiny, and would say with a sigh that she had “not yet reconciled [herself] to the fate of not being the star.”102
In her career with Bill Clinton, and later with Barack Obama, she would have to grapple with this reality.
Hillary arrived at Wellesley a “Goldwater Girl,” having campaigned for the archconservative Barry Goldwater in 1964. But the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the feminist movement had a profound effect on her. By her senior year, she was campaigning for Eugene McCarthy and writing her senior thesis on radical organizer Saul Alinsky. She interviewed him for her thesis and he was impressed enough to offer her a job.103
Hillary was tempted, but, as she later explained, “we had a fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn’t.”104
Hillary was all for fighting the revolution, but she wanted to use the power of government, not replace it. She also noted the contradiction in Alinsky “living a comfortable, expenses-paid life,” while “he considers himself a revolutionary.”105
Still, she learned the power and pull of a star by dwelling on Alinsky’s ability to connect with people. Barbara Olson, in her analysis of Hillary’s college thesis, wrote, “Hillary had come to recognize the potential power of a man of exceptional charm.”106
That charm was something Hillary initially lacked. In Hillary’s Turn, Michael Tomasky described her as being the kind of Midwesterner “who men tend to regard as unapproachable and a little scary.”107 Bill Clinton’s outsize personality could open doors and win over people. But he couldn’t help but hog the spotlight.
No matter what Hillary’s achievements are, she has had to deal with the aerodynamic drag of the men around her. Her younger brothers Hugh (often called Hughie) and Tony were a constant presence. She even took them with her on her honeymoon with Bill Clinton.108 “You are not doing enough for your brothers,” Hillary’s mother told her shortly after Bill Clinton won the presidency.109 Former Clinton staffers said that you never wanted to hear their names unless it had something to do with golf.110 Otherwise, it was trouble.
One time Hugh got into a screaming match with Hillary on Air Force One. He had wanted her to give one of his clients a ride on the president’s plane and she had said no. He slammed doors, was rude to staff, and yelled at Hillary. When he stopped, it was Hillary who apologized to the room. “I’m sorry. My family can be very demanding,” she said.111
When Hillary married Bill Clinton and moved to Arkansas in 1975, she went by “Hillary Rodham” in a show of feminist independence. That gesture didn’t change the fact that she owed her clout to her husband being the Arkansas attorney general and later governor.112 She joined the Rose Law Firm in 1977 and almost immediately made partner, despite billing relatively few hours.113 The firm was an ideal perch for the governor’s wife, as the government of Arkansas was the law firm’s largest client.114
When Bill lost his reelection bid for governor in 1980, Hillary assumed a new identity. Gone were the dowdy dresses, mousy hair, and thick glasses of Hillary Rodham. Instead, voters met “Hillary Clinton,” blonde, sleek, and wearing contact lenses.115
When her husband ran for president, she was again eager to show she was a liberated woman with her own achievements.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, she told 60 Minutes, “If you elect Bill, you get me.”116 Bill Clinton dutifully echoed those sentiments with his constant refrain of “Buy one, get one free.”117 She explained that she looked down on the traditional role of supportive wife: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.”118 It didn’t play well with the public.
Shortly after these campaign gaffes, a reporter asked Hillary to respond to the people who thought she was “the overbearing yuppie wife from hell.” The New York Times noted that “a look of annoyance glittered through Mrs. Clinton’s blue eyes, but she was on a mission to soften her image.”119 Hillary showed admirable discipline through the end of the campaign. Indeed, going to teas and baking cookies is exactly what she did. She addressed a tea given in honor of congressional wives and announced she had entered a recipe in Family Circle’s candidates’ wives’ cookie competition. She asked the tea-sipping ladies to get behind her recipe: “Try my cookies. I hope you like them, but like good Democrats, vote for them anyway.”120
Stymied in her desire for a cabinet position of her own by the so-called “Bobby Kennedy law” that barred the appointment of family members to jobs in the executive branch, Hillary’s informal influence was felt throughout the White House.121 She took an office in the West Wing, near the president’s senior advisors.122 And she was instrumental in choosing some of those advisors.123
She was soon put in charge of the President’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform.124 After some eighteen months of political combat, Congress refused to even vote on her proposal. Instead, it was quietly shelved. Still, her plan to create a government health care monopoly was so unpopular that it handed the Republicans control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 elections. It was the first time in forty years that the GOP had run the entire legislative branch.
Hillary spent much of the next six years either campaigning for her husband or defending him in the press. At the end of the Clinton administration, she decided to seek public office in her own right. She soon announced she was running for the U.S. Senate from New York.125 Harold Ickes told Hillary biographer Gail Sheehy that for Hillary, “This is a race for redemption. It’s really that simple.”126
She won easily.
Once in the Senate, Hillary’s legislative achievements were virtually nonexistent. In the eight years she served, she introduced only twenty bills that became law. These laws were slight: the creation of the Kate Mullany National Historic Site; lauding the goals and ideals of Better Hearing and Speech Month; creating the Ellis Island Medal of Honor; naming one courthouse after Thurgood Marshall and another after James L. Watson; naming a post office after John A. O’Shea and another for Sergeant Riayan A. Tejeda, creating a National Purple Heart Recognition Day; a measure honoring Alexander Hamilton on the bicentennial of his death; one congratulating the Syracuse University Orange Men’s Lacrosse Team on winning a championship and another for the Le Moyne College Dolphins Men’s Lacrosse Team on winning theirs; launching the 225th anniversary of the American Revolution Commemorative Program; honoring Shirley Chisholm and firefighters John J. Downing, Brian Fahey, and Harry Ford for their service to the nation.
The liberal Huffington Post concluded, “It’s a track record of legislative failure and futility.”127
The only real mark she made on the U.S. Senate is telling. Early in her tenure there, she went to see Majority Leader Tom Daschle. She suggested creating a “war room” in the Senate, similar to the rapid response communication center at the Clinton White House. She wanted to “pound the Republican attack machine.”128 Daschle declined. But after the loss of four Senate seats in 2004—including Daschle’s own—Hillary’s war room became a reality. The Hill reported that Hillary’s legacy made the Senate far more partisan, creating “a permanent campaign atmosphere in a chamber that has long prided itself on collegiality and across-the-aisle relationships.”129
After winning a second Senate term, she launched an epic battle for president. The campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination was long and bitter. Virtually all of the memorable attacks against Barack Obama began with the Hillary Clinton campaign, including questions about his birth certificate.
She had anticipated an early victory. Before the Iowa caucuses, she told ABC’s George Stephanopolous, “I’m in it for the long run. It’s not a very long run. It’ll be over by February fifth.”130
As polls began showing Barack Obama was gaining strength, though, she went into fight mode. She said, “Well, now the fun part starts.”131
Hillary fought it with her signature style. She adopted macho bravado, claiming to be “the only candidate with the testicular fortitude to be president.”132
Before the voting in the Iowa caucuses, her campaign produced a copy of Obama’s second-grade essay about wanting to be president. She questioned Obama’s motivation. “You gotta ask yourself, ‘Who’s really committed here [and] who’s doing it just for political reasons?’” Answering a question about Obama having a character problem when he said he had only recently thought about being president, she said, “It’s beginning to look a lot like that. You know, it really is.”133
She lost in Iowa.
When asked about the difficulty of campaigning in a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, coffee shop, she choked up when she said, “It’s not easy, it’s not easy … This is very personal for me.” Reporters, as cruel as second-graders, were snickering among themselves that she was “feeling her own pain.”134
Still, she won the New Hampshire primary.
Hillary continued on offense, not quite realizing she could come off as offensive. In a January 22 debate, drawing a chorus of boos, she said, “You know, Senator Obama, it is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern.”135
Hillary’s problems quickly mounted. She was supposed to be the star, but her husband was a liability. One fund-raiser said, “Bill Clinton was out of control … even the night she won in New Hampshire. Even Hillary couldn’t control him.”136
Then the former president made a series of racially charged remarks in South Carolina. Just before the January 26 primary there, he said that black support for Obama “is understandable, because people are proud when someone who they identify with emerges for the first time.”137 It came off as patronizing.
Behind the scenes, Bill Clinton kept making gaffes. When trying to talk Senator Ted Kennedy out of endorsing Obama, he said, “a few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.”138 Kennedy endorsed Obama.139
By the March 4 primary in Texas, Hillary had already lost Super Tuesday and was on the wrong side of the delegate count. Yet she soldiered on, hoping to be “another comeback kid.”140
Five days before that primary, she went on the air with a direct attack on Obama’s fitness and readiness to be president. It began with an ominous voice-over: “Inevitably, another national security crisis will occur. And when it does, voters shouldn’t have to wonder whether their president will be ready. As president, Hillary will be ready to act swiftly and decisively.”141
By April 2008, Hillary’s supporters launched the Obama birth-certificate issue. Desperate to carry Pennsylvania, the campaign sent out an anonymous e-mail: “Barack Obama’s mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy. She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth.”142 The tactic didn’t help much: Clinton won the primary by a small margin and split the delegates.143
By June 3, when the final state had voted in the Democratic primaries, Hillary had lost. She didn’t suspend her campaign until June 7, after making frantic efforts to get unelected “super delegates”—roughly one thousand party and union officials—to back her. Party leaders repeatedly told her to concede defeat. Even then, she was forty-five minutes late to her own press conference at the National Building Museum, prompting rumors of second thoughts.144
She only appeared to quit. Almost immediately after the primaries ended, Hillary began campaigning for the vice presidential spot through intermediaries.
The Obama campaign never seriously considered her for the vice presidency. The wounds were too fresh. In a bid for party unity and to keep Hillary Clinton from attacking him from the outside, Obama eventually offered her the role of secretary of state.145
In November 2011, the presidential speculation and arguments resurfaced. Hillary supporters Pat Caddell and Douglas Schoen published a plea in The Wall Street Journal called “The Hillary Moment.” In it, they said Obama “should step aside for the one candidate who would become, by acclamation, the nominee of the Democratic Party: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”146
Nevertheless, Clinton forged a constructive role inside the Obama administration. Indeed, she would play a defining role in Obama’s finest foreign-policy victories: from killing bin Laden and ousting Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to staving off the world financial crisis and maintaining key alliances that were under threat. But she often achieved these historic goals by battling Valerie Jarrett, Michelle Obama, and sometimes the president himself.
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Meanwhile, the president has sat at the center of a triumvirate of powerful women: Jarrett, Clinton, and Michelle Obama. They were educated, experienced, and decidedly liberal—as were most of the powerful men in the Obama administration. But each of the women brought two qualities that the men largely did not bring: an ability to read Obama’s subtle and complex moods as well as a willingness to work with often ambiguous guidance from him.
Obama did not usually think in sharp edges or bright lines. He simply wasn’t that kind of leader.
But he was about to tangle with a woman who did, a leader who imposed her vision on the world with clarity and boldness. The contrast was going to be difficult for him. It would challenge his ability to lead.
Copyright © 2012 by Richard Miniter