Obama Top Advisor: ‘There’s Room for Everyone at the Table’
By: Hazel Trice Edney
Originally posted 12/17/2008
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Valerie Jarrett, who will likely become a household name very shortly as she serves as a senior advisor and public liaison for President Barack Obama, says the landscape of activism may drastically change under the Obama administration as those who have traditionally fought to be heard will likely have seats at the table.
“You do not need to have demonstrations in front of the White House to convince this president that there is a disparate impact in the African-American community around issues such as health care and education. He’s got that,” says Jarrett in a telephone interview with the NNPA News Service. “The campaign stood for change. It stood for a grassroots, bottom up drive toward a better country. That does not have to be confrontational. It can be engaging.”
This may mean a mixture of people at the table of solution-seeking, Jarrett says - those from all generations, races and walks of life, she said in the interview that focused mostly on Obama’s style of leadership and how he will maintain a progressive relationship with the Black community.
“It starts with working toward solutions. You don’t have to convince him that there’s a problem. You have to just work with us to come up with the appropriate solutions. And his strategy is, ‘Look if we all come to the table and we have a common goal of trying to solve a problem, there’s no end to what ordinary people can do. We can do extraordinary things together.’”
Particularly during the Bush Administration, protest marching surged.
Iconic Black activists the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have led thousands of people in numerous marches over the past several years, pertaining to everything from economic injustice to inequities in the criminal justice system to specific cases of police misconduct and racial unrest.
Jarrett, a Chicago business woman who is already called the “first friend” to the Obamas, has not ruled out the possibility of even Jackson and Sharpton at the table in the White House.
“This administration is about inclusion and not about exclusion,” she said when asked whether Jackson, Sharpton and the Rev. Joseph Lowery might possibly be among those at the table.
“The basic foundation of his philosophy is that too many people have been excluded for too long; the special interest groups and the lobbyists have dominated Washington. And as a result, the voices of every day people have been drowned out. And this grassroots campaign has been about reengaging the American people. And so there’s room for everyone at the table.”
Acknowledging that it is clearly “a new generation’s turn to lead”, she said Obama still sees a place for those, such as Lowery, who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“You don’t turn your back on the older generation,” she said. “But, you understand that they’re seeing the world through a different prism and in order to move forward, we have to have a new generation of leadership. That doesn’t disenfranchise those who have worked so hard who came before us.
But, it is a natural succession that you would have this new era in a sense.”
Valerie Jarrett knows how the president-elect thinks. It is often said that talking to Jarrett is the same as talking to Obama. That assertion is close to the truth, she concedes.
“Obviously, he is his own person, but we are very close,” she says. “I’ve had the pleasure of knowing both the president-elect and his terrific wife, Michelle for over 17 years now. I have worked with them both. They are my very dear friends, so I think we understand each other.”
Preparing to lead, they hash out issues daily.
“During the transition now I speak with him several times a day,” Jarrett says. “He’s in the transition office everyday. I’m there at least some portion of every day and so, we’re deeply involved in the selection of his cabinet and analyzing agency reviews and all of the multiple array of both challenges and opportunities facing our country. And so, we spend a lot of quality time together these days.”
She is not only a senior advisor and public liaison, but she will also lead the administration on intergovernmental affairs, working with state and local governments, where many of the nitty-gritty issues, such as crime, poverty, homeless and unequal justice are being fought every day.
“He understands that change starts at the ground,” she says.
CEO of a real estate development and management company, Jarrett brings to the table a plethora of educational and professional experiences that have prepared her for this moment, including degrees from Stanford and the University of Michigan and she has worked for two Chicago mayors, Harold Washington and Richard Daily.
But, Jarrett says she pulls mostly from Obama himself when helping him to make day-to-day decisions on appointments and transition strategies.
For Black people – who have been historically at rock bottom at nearly every negative social statistic in America - that means rising as others rise, Jarrett says.
Citing the racially disparate economic impact on job losses and disparate health and health care statistics, Jarrett acknowledges, “They are far more rampant in the Black community than you see in the general population…So, if you’re going to say that front and center is the economy and we take initiatives to jump start the economy and the Black community is most fragile, it’s going to inure to the African-American community,” she said.
Jarrett says Obama’s inclusive leadership style will naturally remind America that what’s good for African-Americans is good for all.
“We have to see that we are all inextricably bound,” she says. “So, I think he brings to the conversation a way of describing how you help the Black community that is in the self-interest of the general population.”
Still, there are enemies even to that vision. Jarrett laments news of reported racial hate crimes and attacks that have happened in response to Obama’s election.
“He has absolutely no tolerance for racial injustice, regardless of the race that it’s been directed toward,” she says. “He feels very strongly that we have to come together and stop the racial injustice that has ravaged our country in the past.”
Still, she says, nothing will distract him from the goals he has set to change the way business is done in American politics. She cites his personal experience as perhaps his best guide.
“He knows what it’s like to grow up without a father. He knows what it’s like to have a mom struggling between being at home with her family and being away working. He knows what it’s like to have to put himself through school through scholarships and piece together and work so that he can get the quality education that will allow him to be the kind of president that he’s going to be. And so, there’s a level of empathy having walked in the shoes of those who are the less fortunate,” Jarret says. “I think our country is so fortunate to have a president whose life has not been so easy.”
Still, America’s first African-American president is taking on levels of responsibility never seen in American history. Jarrett is optimistic.
“Our challenges are so immense. We haven’t been in this kind of economic crisis since the great depression. We have two wars going on. We have our climate that’s in peril, we have our public school system that needs an enormous amount of help, we have an energy crisis in our country, we have a health care problem in our country,” She concludes. “Change does not come easy. There will be many forces that will want to continue the status quo. We have to rise above that.”