Valerie Jarrett is one of Barack Obama's most trusted political advisers dating back to his start in electoral office in Illinois.
As a senior adviser to the president, Jarrett was nicknamed in the press "the Obama whisperer." As the president's de facto gatekeeper, she was also a driving force behind many of the most consequential domestic policy decisions during his two terms in office.
In the following interview, Jarrett speaks at length about some of the most defining moments of the Obama presidency, including the battle to pass healthcare reform; the failed push toward gun control legislation; his struggles with Republicans in Congress; and his handling of racial tensions in the country.
Says Jarrett, "To simply think that because he is a black president that he can wave a magic wand and solve generations of problems, well that's unrealistic. And it's also an abdication of our collective responsibility to be agents for change."
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on June 16, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
It was all of the above. There was hope; there was change; there was a sense of infinite possibilities. I think the president still feels that way about America--Washington, not so much.
Well, he was met with this attitude, actually in the very words of leader [Sen. Mitch] McConnell where he said, "My one objective is to make sure President Obama is not re-elected." Now, remember at the time, we were in the middle of an economic meltdown. Our banks were near collapse; our economy was in tumult. The stock market was crashing. People were seeing their life savings and their homes vanish and their jobs vanish before their very eyes. And here you have the leader of the Senate saying all he cares about is trying to stop President Obama. That kind of obstructionist attitude has unfortunately permeated the last seven and a half years.
Just say no. That's been their motto since the beginning. And I think [what's] been most frustrating is the "just say no" puts their short-term political interests ahead of what's good for the country, and it's that dynamic that has been extraordinarily frustrating to the president, and as he said in his last State of the Union, it's the ... intractable issue, that, unfortunately, that fever we've been unable to break.
I think we knew it would always be challenging. Thinking back to that time, did we know that they would, for the entire term that he was in office, consistently have that approach? No. In the beginning, the president tried all kinds of strategies for trying to engage them and make them feel a part of the process, first with the stimulus, with the Affordable Care Act. I think there were over 200 amendments to the Affordable Care Act that were put in place to try to secure Republican votes. Then in the end, not a single one voted for it.
He knew it was going to be hard, and he knew he was going to need a long runway to get it not just passed, but actually successfully implemented while he was still in the White House. He also knew how vitally important it would be, and at a time when he had so much momentum behind him, he thought it was the right time to do really tough things. Seven presidents before him had tried and failed, and he knew not only was it important to ensure that in this country that's the greatest country on earth, we ensure that every American has access to affordable healthcare. But he also knew that it would help us with the fiscal budget. Health care costs are the number one challenge that we have in our budget, so it was sound policy; it was good for the American people, and it was also a good way of tightening our own belt. It was important to get it done right away.
I think the president has an ability to listen, but also to keep in the front of his mind the long view. He knew this was going to be challenging. He knew the kind of rhetoric that was coming out of the Republican Party, where they were trying to scare people with fear of death panels. Well, nobody really knew what a death panel meant, but they knew they didn't like the sound of it, right? All that was intended to gin people up. So he recognized that that was something that we were going to have to power through, and ultimately that's what he did.
You know, I don't recall us spending a lot of time trying to figure out what the motivation was. We knew that the driving force was coming from Congress, Republican members of Congress, who were trying to gin up their base. If their attitude instead had been every American should have affordable health care; we want to make sure that insurance companies don't discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions; we think every young person should stay on their parents' plan until they're 26; we think women should have preventive care--when you listen to the message that way, if they had said it in those terms, which is the reality to their constituents, you wouldn't have seen that kind of anger on the streets.
If you remember, the comment was made at the very end of a press conference devoted to the Affordable Care Act. So the fact that it turned into such a big issue was a surprise to us. I think the way he handled it was to do what he always does, which is "Let's bring in people, and let's have a conversation." By inviting both Skip Gates and the officer [James Crowley] and [saying], "Let's sit down and talk," because when people do talk to one another, they learn something, that's always been the president's approach, is to be inclusive, is to say, "Let's bring the folks together."
I think if you think about the eulogy he gave for Rev. [Clementa] Pinckney in Charleston, it was a teaching moment. He talked about the black church. It was an education to a lot of people who couldn't understand why a church would have its doors open to a stranger given the history of attacks on the black church. And then he also said: "Well, let's not stop with taking down the Confederate flag. Let's talk about what we're going to do to make sure every child gets an education and is safe and that the police who are there to serve and protect have a strong relationship with the community."
I think his approach has always been to not just have a conversation about race, but to really bring people together so that they can listen and hear one another.
We were disappointed that after all of that effort and outreach to the Republican members, and after all the compromises that were made to try to create a bill that embodied their suggestions in order to generate bipartisan support, we were disappointed that in the end they didn't feel free to vote for it. So it was disappointing, and it portended what we've seen since then, which is a pattern of an unwillingness to look at compromise as part of the mission in a democracy. Instead, they think of compromise as a bad word and a sign of weakness, and that's just not true.
All the time. Of course we talk about it, and we talk about it in the context of what can we do about it, and what can we do to bring them in? What can we do to make them feel safe? There were times when the president was trying to move forward with an agenda item, and the Republicans said, "Well, if you talk about it, it will make it harder to get done." So he tried to not be outspoken on issues, and he tried to follow their lead and have dialogue that was open all with the goal of trying to get something done that was good for the American people.
What we've learned over that period of time is that because of this atmosphere, because of the toxic nature of what's happening in Washington right now, there isn't the political will for the Republicans to meet him and compromise, to meet him and even be seen in the White House often. That creates a situation where it's really impossible to get them to do their jobs.
Well, it's preposterous to question whether or not someone who's born in Hawaii is actually an American citizen. It's ridiculous, and it was a distraction, and the president thought, well, let's just deal with it, as mounting numbers of people were beginning to wonder, well, is it true? Is he actually not born here?
Using humor, he comes out, and he shows his birth certificate and says: "OK, now enough with that nonsense. Let's get back to serious issues." He uses whatever communication strategy he thinks will reach people where they are, help them see how ludicrous the accusation is, and kind of poke fun at anyone who would try to do something like that, and then move on. I mean, never before has anybody shouted in the middle of a presidential address to Congress, "You lie." That's just outrageously disrespectful, not just to the president, but to the office.
But you can't allow yourself to give in and become consumed with that kind of behavior. What's most important is the president not lose his focus and that he continue to figure out ways of bringing people together, challenge us all to overcome that kind of polarizing rhetoric and work together. I think today he still believes that the American people want that. The challenge is getting Congress to follow their lead.
I think he said what he felt, which is if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. After the [George] Zimmerman verdict, he said what can we all do [is] some soul searching to figure out how we can ensure that every American, including young boys of color, young men of color, get a fair shot, and that we really ask ourselves about how we feel about one another. What kind of judgments do we make about one another? Why would you be afraid of a teenage boy walking down the street with some Skittles in his hand? Why would that be scary?
To have that conversation in an open and healthy and constructive way is what he tried to do. And it's really what led to the creation of the My Brother's Keeper initiative, which is designed to ensure that boys and young men of color get that fair shot. We've seen incredible support around the country for this initiative.
When tragedy happens, the president really tries to find ways of reaching people, touching their hearts, encouraging them to look at themselves honestly and openly and figure out what do we want to do to change, and to do it out of a spirit of love and inclusiveness and reminding people that what makes our country is rich[ness] in diversity and that that's a strength, not a weakness.
First of all, Newtown was the worst moment of the presidency. It was unfathomable to imagine 20 children, six- and seven-year-old first graders being gunned down in that kind of violent and destructive way, and six adults who were there trying to help. It was really tough for the president to go up there two days after the Sandy Hook massacre and face the parents and loved ones and siblings and grandparents and try to make sense of a totally insensible [tragedy].
There was an outpouring of support for change. Ninety percent of the American people believed we should have sensible background checks, not that it would save every life, but that it could have saved one of those precious children. He and the vice president put an enormous amount of effort into bringing in all the stakeholders, talking about what can we do, what would be sensible, what could garner bipartisan support. You have Sen. [Joe] Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sen. [Pat] Toomey (R-Penn.), two members, bipartisan, who had excellent ratings from the NRA, craft a bill that had the support of the families and had the support of the American people, and yet it failed. Why was there not the political will to go up against the NRA? Why could you allow a special interest group to have so much power in America that it would preclude you from doing what you know is right? What could be possibly wrong about sensible background checks? It doesn't make any sense.
It was yet another example of the Republicans being unwilling to be accountable to the American people. Instead, they chose to be [accountable] to a special interest group.
No, that's not actually what the conversation was at all. This is an issue that the vice president cared a lot about, and it was going to require an enormous amount of time and energy of whoever took the lead on this. The president is the president of the United States, and he thought that Vice President Biden could really devote in a short period of time countless hours to this effort. That was the strategy. It wasn't a matter of you being the president and because this is an issue that might be sensitive. That actually didn't enter into the conversation.
He was very much in the debate. He gave eloquent speeches about how important this was. So I don't think anybody doubted that he was behind this effort. It was really a matter of dividing up the time and energy that needed to be spent in the short order, and the vice president took on this task, just as he's taken on many tasks in the course of the presidency.
It was hugely frustrating first, because on the merits, it's the right thing to do. The president did spend a lot of time and effort, again, bringing together bipartisan groups. We had the business community; we had the advocates; we had law enforcement; we had faith leaders; we had a whole range of stakeholders who were committed to this, and we had support from both houses in Congress. And frankly, after [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor lost, the political will in the House dissipated, and fear trumped doing the right thing.
Complete irresponsibility. There was no way that the president was going to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It's preposterous to even think that he would do that. And for the Republicans to let one senator shut down the government as he's trying to make some political point is ridiculous. It's totally irresponsible. It cost a fortune. It wreaked havoc on our ability to deliver services to the American people during that period of time. And to what end? To what end? The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land. Twenty million people now have health insurance. Every American has protections that we put in place to ensure that insurance companies couldn't discriminate against them. What was the point of that, to garner political support?
There was no way he was going to negotiate to compromise on a law that he thinks benefits the American people. He wasn't going to trade their interests for the government shutdown. And in the end, they realized that it was politically untenable for them to take that position. The only reason the government opened back up is that they finally said, "OK, we're losing this battle; we'd better act more responsibly," because that's what the American people were demanding of them.
Yes, absolutely. They have a good relationship, great relationship.
The problem was never the relationship between the speaker and the president. The problem was the speaker had a portion of his caucus that was ungovernable, that took the attitude "My way or the highway." I'm just going to hold my breath and turn blue until I get my way. That's not how democracy functions, and I think if you were to ask the speaker, he would say the same thing. He had a portion of his caucus that was simply unwilling to do what was right for the country when they were trying to make political hay back home.
The thinking was this. First, best comprehensive immigration reform legislation. A permanent solution to what we all recognize is a system in need of reform. The president spent a lot of time and capital trying to get Congress to do its job and do a comprehensive bill that would have solved the problem permanently. In the absence of that, he challenged his team to go back and explore what the possibilities were for him to take executive action, and that's what he did. It took some time for us to figure out what's the best possible way that we can try to address this situation well within the confines of his authority as president, so that's what he did.
What he was faced with was doing nothing or doing what he could, and he chose to do what he could.
Well, it's to look at our options. I think that's always what the president is challenged with doing, is what's best for the American people? He has always taken the path of trying to work with Congress because those solutions are the ones that are more comprehensive, more permanent. It's not an either/or; it's a both/and. So at the same time as we work with Congress, he also has tried to do what's within his power to help the American people.
He held back on executive actions initially because he thought that might jeopardize the chance for legislation, and when it became clear that he couldn't get it, then he said, "Well, I'm going to do what I can do." I don't really think it's a matter of feeling liberated. It was a matter of trying to work within the system the best he could, and then when the system proved to be totally dysfunctional, he said, "Well, let me figure out what I can do and do that."
Racism has been a problem in our country for generations, and I think it was never the president's expectation that simply by his election, suddenly race relations would be repaired in our country. Culture takes time. What he's done is ensure that he has a Justice Department that is ensuring every American is treated fairly and protect[ing] their rights. In this instance, Eric Holder was an important figure to go to Ferguson, meet with the representatives of the community, talk about the importance of doing a thorough investigation and meting out justice.
There is a tricky issue here, because the president selects the attorney general, so the president can't really put his thumb on the scale on a particular legal issue while it's still currently under investigation. He has to refrain from saying what he might want to say to ensure that justice is fair.
Out of that, I think what we saw not just there but then in our hometown of Chicago was what people in the black community have known all along, and that is that there are occasions when there is a breakdown in trust between police and the people who they are there to serve and protect, and let's have an honest conversation about that. That's why he created the [President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing], charged with really examining this breakdown in trust and figure out how to repair it, recognizing that most of our members of law enforcement are honorable citizens putting their life on the line--they deserve to come home, too--but that there are communities in our country, particularly communities of color, where there's been a breakdown in this trust and that our communities would be safer if we repaired that breakdown in trust.
But that's not something that happens since the president took office. That's been going on for as long as I can remember. I'm from Chicago, and there is nothing new. The only thing new is that now people have cameras and video, and they're able to capture some of this stuff on film.
I'll tell you a story. The president invited in January of 2015, I think it was, a group of demonstrators, many of whom had started in Ferguson that summer and continued demonstrating throughout the fall and into the winter, as well as demonstrators from around the country, because if you will recall, what Ferguson triggered were demonstrations across the country. He had a handful of them in the Oval [Office], and he said: "I used to be you. I started out as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago. I know what it's like to knock on doors in the cold and have people shut the door in your face. I know what it's like to be up against the sense of this giant of oppression and you're trying to fight the good battle." He said, "But what do you really want to get done?" And he encouraged them to help be a part of the task force that he ultimately formed.
One young woman, Brittany Packnett, who ran Teach for America in the St. Louis area, reluctantly decided to join the task force. Because of her participation in the task force, fundamental changes were made in the outcome of the report. Had she not been there, it wouldn't have happened. So it's a good example of him saying: "Look, yes, it's important to demonstrate in the street. You have galvanized public attention. You've kept the media spotlight on an issue. But you have to figure out what do you want. It's not enough to demonstrate. It's important, but you also have to figure out what you want."
I think if you were to talk to Brittany today, she would say: "Yes, I was really reluctant. Why? Because I wasn't sure I could actually make a difference." There's one representative of Black Lives Matter who's been invited here to the White House now twice and has been reluctant to come for fear that it might be a photo op or something. If you want to change your government, you have to engage with your government. That's part of the president's message as well.
In a sense, because he's the black president, he does not shoulder solely the responsibility for change, because change requires a culture change, which means we all have to come together. What he has done is he has spoken out when he thought that his voice could be a constructive agent for change: when he gave the eulogy in Charleston, a constructive agent for change; when he spoke after Trayvon Martin, a constructive agent for change; when he brought together Skip Gates and that police officer.
To simply think that because he is a black president that he can wave a magic wand and solve generations of problems, well, that's unrealistic. And it's also an abdication of our collective responsibility to be agents for change.
... What I remember most vividly is we were on a West Coast trip, and we were in a helicopter in California, and across one of the president's press aide's, his Twitter feed, came the report that the family members who went to court said that they forgave this man. The president at the time was looking at statistics about how many people are killed by gun violence, and he put that aside, and he said, "This is what is important, is this ability to forgive, the goodness of our country, which far outweighs the evil."
So over the course of the next few days, while we were traveling, we talked about it. Then we returned to the White House. We had a conversation, and he talked about the fact that so many Americans really don't know much about the black church, and people were surprised that a stranger would be invited in and that he would participate in a prayer Bible study and be welcome, and how could that be, given the history in the black church of bombings and attacks?
He thought, wouldn't it be important to talk about both the black church and this amazing grace of the people of Charleston, the people who were members of that congregation, the family members who had suffered the worst day of their life, and to use that as a motivating force for change, a powerful, motivating force for change? That's what he was thinking about at the time.
He mentioned it to me and to the first lady, and he said, "There's a moment in my eulogy where I think I might sing." Well, I learned my lesson when we were in New York, and he threatened to go out and sing when we were there for an event. And, of course, that went over very, very well. I said, "Don't sing, don't sing." He goes, "I think I'm going to sing." And he went out, and he sang, and everybody loved it. So I wasn't going to tell him not to sing this time. I think our attitude is if it's right, if you think the moment is right to do it, then obviously you do it.
I do remember right before he sang, he paused, and I remember thinking, is he thinking am I going to sing or am I not going to sing? And later I asked him, "What were you thinking about at that moment?" He said: "I was just collecting myself. I knew I was going to do it, and the only question was going to be how quickly did the congregation rise? And they sure rose quickly." It was one of the most powerful moments I can remember.
It was a sense of we're all in this together around the song about amazing grace. It was about the goodness of America. It was about if one of us is hurt, we're all hurt. And yet it was a powerful message of hope, and to have him begin and have everybody else rise up just reminded us of how intertwined we all are.
Yes, Feb. 10.
Yes, I was. It was cold that day, just as it was cold on the day he announced his candidacy.
As you'll remember, he started with his State of the Union, or he said that one of his biggest disappointments was not being able to bridge that party divide, that toxicity in this town. He decided to go home to Springfield because in Springfield, it was a place where, as a junior state senator, he was able to develop relationships on the other side of the aisle, and people were able to go out to dinner and hang out in the evening, go on the floor and have a spirited debate and then go right back and talk to each other and develop friendships with one another.
He did an interview while he was down there with some of his fellow colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and they knew him. They didn't pass judgment on some abstract figure from afar; they actually took the time to get to know him.
... I think the purpose of his speech was a continuation of his State of the Union, where he talked about this toxic party divide, and he reminded everyone of why you go into elected office in the first place. It's public service, public servant, which means you're there to do the good of the people and that it is not OK to be so caught up with your own re-election that you forget why you're there.
The regret is simply that he wasn't able to bring people together and break that fever, notwithstanding all of his best efforts, and that it's really up to the American people to get engaged and hold our elected officials accountable. You can't be a true citizen unless you engage with your democracy.
I think the Republicans were at fault, and I think they allowed their short-term political interest to cloud their judgment and to give them amnesia for why they went into public service in the first place. Some of them are very frustrated by it as well. They feel as though the leadership prevents them from doing what they often think is the right thing to do and that you've seen people not run for re-election because they were so frustrated by what's happening here in Washington.
So I think the Republican shoulder that responsibility. Is the president the president and therefore disappointed that he couldn't bring them together? Yes, but when your strategy is to simply say no and you have no political will to come and compromise, then it makes the jobs of the president impossible to bridge that gulf.
The objective of the president in negotiating with Congress is to bring both sides together, so each party has wish lists, and each party comes to the table with their wish list. Part of what the president tries to do is to sort out that wish list and give everybody some of what they want. And it's not easy. Part of the challenge here is to create a forum in which people can have honest conversations.
I think on the stimulus, unfortunately some of the items that the Republicans were wishing for, the Democrats weren't going to go for, and vice versa. Ultimately, time was of the essence, and we had to move forward expeditiously with the best package we could forge.
Keep in mind, we were losing 750,000, 800,000 jobs a month. Our [un]employment rate was skyrocketing. People were losing their homes. Banks were so incredibly fragile, our economy and state and local government was on the verge of collapse. So it was important to act quickly. If we had an infinite amount of time, or even several months, then perhaps we could have forged a deal where people felt they got more than they ended up getting in this deal. But we did the best we could with time being of the essence.
But that should not be a reason to say, "I'm not going to come to the table and never talk to you again." I think the Affordable Care Act was a great example of where the president did open up, and we did have time, and we did have honest and thorough debate and include 200 recommendations that came from the Republicans. Even with that effort, even with the months of delay, to try to get a deal that was acceptable, they still didn't have the political will to vote for it.
Well, that's simply not true. I know the president is an excellent listener. Now, what he may have done is say, "I'm not going to do something that I don't think is in the best interests of the people, and if what you're proposing to do is to cut benefits to people who are desperately in need and at the same time reduce taxes for those at the very top, if you think that's a stimulus, well, no, I don't agree with you in principle on that."
But he's always been open to listening to the other side and has always encouraged them to come in. And the fact that they gave up, if that's what I'm hearing you say, that they gave up and decided, "Well, no, we can't have our way so we're not going to talk to the president of the United States," well, that's an abdication of their responsibility. They can never give up. They always have to keep trying. And the president has kept trying, notwithstanding their obstructionists. He has never said, "My door is closed, and I won't meet with you." He's always reached out and said, "Come on in, and let's try to figure out what we can do here." That's the job, and he's going to keep doing it for as long as he remains in office. For them to not do that, for them to reach a judgment about him and then walk away, what purpose does that serve?
I think that this president does have to make sure that his words are going to serve a constructive purpose and not be a lightning rod or distraction, so he does have to be maybe more deliberate. But I think every president has to be pretty careful when they talk about race, because it's a very sensitive issue in America. I think that his approach throughout his life has been to talk about it in a way where it's going to be constructive and helpful. And in this instance, he felt that his words were misconstrued and that it was important to quickly return to being constructive. He was surprised by the reaction, but given that reaction, it was important to respond promptly so that his words did not become an issue in and of themselves, because that's not his goal. His goal is always to be a constructive, positive force.
I think the president quickly realized that the strategy of the Republicans was going to be to make him a polarizing figure, to try to separate him from the American people who elected him, to try to make him the problem as opposed to the solution. What he kept his eye on was the true north. What can I do in service to our country? What can I do to try to move our country forward, ensure everybody gets that fair shot, make America a more perfect union? His stewardship is there intended to make it more perfect than he found it. And that was the true north that he kept focused on.
But it did become clear that their strategy was a very different one, and I think they thought that that strategy would ensure he wasn't re-elected. But yet the American people re-elected him. So it shows you that that strategy is a failed strategy and that if they had simply come to the table and been constructive, if they continued to try to work with him, how much more we could have accomplished for the good of the country. And that's a point of great frustration to the president.
Well, on what was the coldest day of the year, there was nothing but sunshine and warmth I think in the hearts of everybody who was on the mall that day. I will never forget the moment I walked through the door with my daughter, holding her hand, and saw that crowd, and the fact that everyone came here with so much hope for the promise of not the president, but our country. Do I have frustrations since that day of how toxic this town has turned out to be? Sure. Do I still have confidence in all the people who were on that mall and watching around our country about the future of our country? Yes, I do.