Where is Deval’s Valerie Jarrett?

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine offers a fascinating glimpse into the Obama administration in the form of a profile of Valerie Jarrett, whose official title is senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement. The magazine cover offers a much shorter title, which telegraphs Jarrett's real standing in the White House: "Obama's BFF." 

The story is about the inner workings of presidential power, but in reading it I found it hard not to reflect on the workings of gubernatorial power on Beacon Hill.

Jarrett Jarrett, a few years the president's senior, is a former top Chicago city official and real estate business bigwig who became a trusted confidant and mentor to Obama in the early 1990s, when he was fresh out of law school and Jarrett hired his then-fiance, Michelle Robinson, to work under her in the Chicago mayor's office.

Today, Jarrett functions as Obama's alter ego, the person on the White House staff who understands and knows him best — and who has the sort of standing with the president to set him straight when he's veering off-path.

The article opens with a story about Jarrett being the only member of Obama's senior campaign team who could twist the reluctant — and exhausted — candidate's arm and get him to make a brief appearance at a huge gala in South Carolina for an African-American sorority on the eve of that state's Democratic primary. Until that point, Obama had steadfastly refused to add the event to the end of a long campaign day, even though his staff believed it was crucial that he at least stop in and wave, with some blacks still unsure about his candidacy and Hillary Clinton still counting on support among black women in particular.

Obama described Jarrett's unique role to the article's author, Robert Draper, this way:

"She's family — she combines the closeness of a family member with the savvy and objectivity of a professional businesswoman and public-policy expert. And that's a rare combination to have. You know, there are other friends of mine who are close to me but who don't really understand the nature of my work. There are others who are extraordinary experts in policy and politics but don't have that track record with me." 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The story describes Jarrett as the latest in a line of figures "almost uninterrupted throughout the history of the American presidency" who have served in the White House as "The One Who Gets the Boss." For George W. Bush, writes Draper, it was Karen Hughes. Bruce Lindsey played that role for Bill Clinton, as did Jim Baker for the first President Bush. 

To observers of Bay State politics, the story might help frame a question that has loomed over the erratic tenure of a governor who has shown flashes of commanding leadership and moments of tin-eared cluelessness: Who is Deval Patrick's Valerie Jarrett? 

The answer, Beacon Hill cognoscenti seem to agree: he doesn't have one. 

Patrick parachuted into Massachusetts politics with no background in the give-and-take of elected office, and he brought along no one with the twin virtues of "kinship and competence" that Draper says define Jarrett's profile and that have characterized those who have played a similar role for presidents, governors, and assorted other officeholders.

Most politicians develop a "coterie of advisers" who know them and whom they grow to trust as they move up the ladder, says Steve Crosby, dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass-Boston. "The most valuable adviser I think a public official can have is a peer who is really intimate as a friend who's really trusted and who can speak completely honestly," says Crosby. "Patrick, when he got here, had virtually zero of that."

Patrick's first chief of staff, veteran nonprofit executive Joan Wallace-Benjamin, seemed to meet some of the kinship requirement, but she was way out of her league when it came to competence in high-level politics. Her successor, Doug Rubin, who served as chief strategist in Patrick's winning gubernatorial campaign, has clearly emerged as Patrick's most trusted adviser, say those familiar with the workings of the governor's office. Rubin brings political smarts and campaign know-how to the table, but he has only known Patrick since joining his long-shot bid in 2005. (Rubin left the governor's office last month to return to his campaign-strategist roots and help direct Patrick's reelection battle.)

None of this is to say that every successful politician must have someone at their side who is both a savvy sage and trusted, long-time intimate. But it surely helps, and perhaps would have been especially valuable for a governor sometimes given to the cocky certitude that can be an elected official's worst enemy. 

That means someone who not only "gets the boss," but who can overrule his instincts when they seem misguided. For Patrick, that would have been someone to tell him, "No Cadillac, no fancy furniture."  It would have been someone to put their foot down and insist that he not head to New York to sign a book deal as the Legislature was preparing to vote on his casino bill, or to question the Marian Walsh patronage appointment that undercut his reformer credentials just as Patrick was trying to gain the upper hand in showdowns with the Legislature. It would also mean someone who can push a governor whose inclination is to either lecture or ignore the press to instead make himself more accessible to reporters.

With the 2010 election season already underway, and recent poll numbers giving the governor plenty to worry about, Patrick's own need to "bring his 'A' game," as he warned would-be opponent Tim Cahill to do, has perhaps never been greater. He may not have a Valerie Jarrett to help him. But being mindful of the role she plays and giving top aides some of that save-me-from-myself standing might be the next best thing.