Valerie Jarrett Discusses Political Friendships

Senior Advisor to the President Valerie B. Jarrett highlighted the role of personal relationships in the political sphere, speaking about her friendship with President Barack Obama to several hundred audience members at the Institute of Politics on Friday.

The event, co-sponsored by the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, featured a conversation between Jarrett and Kennedy School professor David R. Gergen.

Jarrett recounted her first interactions with the Obamas, when she interviewed Michelle Obama for a job with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1991. Her decades-long relationship with Obama has strengthened her ability to advise the President, Jarrett said, as she understands the important elements of his character, including an “even-keeled temperament” and “a sense of empathy.”

Gergen called Jarrett “the nation’s First Friend” and said he felt comfortable knowing that Jarrett’s friendship with Obama allowed her to be an honest advisor to the President.

“Politics is a mixture of policy and personality,” Gergen said in an interview after the event. “If you don’t get the personal angle, you don’t understand what’s really happening.”

Jarrett also addressed recent public concerns about the Obama administration’s stance on issues such as the economy, government spending, and health care reform. She emphasized that the public must acknowledge the difficulty of and time needed for meaningful changes, but also said that the administration plans to incorporate ideas of ordinary Americans into government policy.

“Part of what was so magical about the president’s campaign was that he was able to get so many people interested in government who had been so apathetic for so long,” Jarrett said. “Part of what is frustrating for us is to see the tenor of the dialogue degenerate so much that people who were captivated are apathetic.”

Several audience members said they enjoyed hearing the insight Jarrett gave into Obama’s thought process.

“People generally feel that the White House and Oval office are closed off, but we really got to see a close and intimate glimpse,” Alice Xiang ’13 said.

Harvard Divinity School student Jaeson D. Plon said he was better able to appreciate Obama’s decision-making by listening to a firsthand account describing the president in more familiar terms.

“It definitely puts one at ease, getting a sense of the personality,” Plon said. “The people who hold these offices are people, and they need support of friends.”

But Kennedy School student Anirudh Suri said he was skeptical whether personal friendships should play such an important role in government.

“It made me wonder what that means for inclusivity in politics, what that means for people who are not in these circles,” Suri said.

—Staff writer Stephanie B. Garlock can be reached at sgarlock@college.harvard.edu.

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