As predicted, the Democratic circular firing squad has convened in the wake of the historic losses President Barack Obama’s party suffered at the polls last week. The long knives are out, and Democrats are searching for someone, anyone, on to whom they can shift blame in order to absolve the president and the ideology he represents of culpability for this debacle.
Long a target of suspicion for those on the right, the left has begun taking notice of the president’s close advisor since his Chicago days, Valerie Jarrett. As is often the case in the wake of historic rebukes, the president’s allies are calling for him to shake up his staff and set a new tone for the final two years in office. It has been, however, the calls to jettison Jarrett which inspired the most passion on both sides of that argument.
The most aggressive call for Obama to cut ties with Jarrett was published in Politico Magazine last week by Carol Felsenthal. The Huffington Post contributor and Chicago Magazine columnist outright called on Obama to fire his advisor, noting that few know exactly what it is she does beyond insulating the president from constructive criticism.
“[O]n balance it appears that Jarrett has been more an obstructer than a facilitator over the past six years when it comes to governing, and it’s probably long past time for the president to move her gently into another role,” Felsenthal wrote in one of the kinder passages toward the long-time Obama advisor. “Jarrett’s questionable career inside the White House somehow symbolizes the opportunity cost of the Obama presidency—a wasted chance to make change.”
She suggested Jarrett fulfill her desire to aggrandize the president by serving outside the White House as the custodian of his presidential library.
Her direct attack on Obama’s friend and counselor prompted frenzied wagon circling among administration allies.
The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber composed an thoroughly researched piece in support of the claim that Jarrett is better able to advise the president on political matters than any other.
Scheiber paints a mixed picture of her competence in that role. At times, she it tactically inept, while at others she is a masterful manager of competing interests. She serves as a medium, balancing the concerns of liberal activist groups or soothing the wounded egos of corporate executives, according to Scheiber, acting as a firewall between them and the president. In general, however, Schreiber’s piece is probably one the president enjoyed reading. It closes with the contention that Obama and Jarrett are “reasonable people,” while their critics are not.
Schreiber’s defense of Jarrett at least contained some nuance. Other attempts to excuse the “Obama whisperer,” as The New Republic dubbed her, of blame for the president’s current political predicament were far more gauche.
“The one difference between Jarrett and others who have wielded the same kind of power in the West Wing is that she is a woman,” The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart submitted. “Were she a man, her job would not be subject to endless ‘What does he really do?’ questions.”
“So why is Valerie the focus of these ridiculous attacks?” MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski wrote, after disclosing her personal “friendship” with Jarrett. “Perhaps it is because she is a woman.”
Both go on to offer dubious defense of Jarrett’s performance in office, but their arguments are marred by the insipid impulse to observe that the subject of criticism has a unique set of genitals. How this serves to undermine Jarrett’s critics, only they know. Perhaps they think Jarrett, among the most powerful people in Washington, can be cast as a victim of “sexist” attacks and is therefore deserving of sympathy. This is likely so, because the left has convinced itself that this sympathy is a transferable quantity; the individual denouncing invented sexism can also claim victim status when their arguments are challenged.
Where there is substance in the above augments, it quickly falls apart when disputed. “Would these criticisms be leveled at men like John Podesta or Dan Pfeiffer?” Brzezinski asked. Probably not, although not because they have male genitalia. Politico Magazine reported that Pfeiffer will join Ben Rhodes on the way out the door shortly after the midterms. Podesta only committed to staying one year in his role, and even then only to serve as a figure facilitating transition from the Obama White House to the Hillary Clinton White House. For those well-meaning critics of the Obama administration who want to see a personnel shakeup, it only makes sense to demand the departure of someone who is intent on staying put.
But even countering the notion that Jarrett suffers stoically amid prejudice unduly flatters Capehart and Brzezinski. This sort of dime store grievance peddling does not deserve to be considered analysis. There is, however, merit to the argument that Jarrett is not the problem in the Obama White House. Felsenthal’s contention centers on the notion that Obama’s behavior would change if he only had a new set of tough love advisors. That thesis is supported by scant evidence.
When Obama’s party took a sound thrashing at the hands of the voters in 2010, the president did embrace a bit of a pivot in the form of appointing William Daley, a business-friendly Chicago Democrat, to serve as his chief of staff. Daley lasted in that role for one year, and departed a year sooner than many expected. According to postmortem reports, Daley did not believe he could execute the task he was given.
“People close to the situation tell POLITICO that Daley decided to bolt nearly a year earlier than expected in part because he felt marginalized,” the well-connected reporter Glenn Thrush revealed. “He was still involved in most key meetings, but he had waning influence, particularly over political decisions made by Obama’s inner circle.”
Not only was Daley unable to navigate the White House, he was not especially adroit at working with Hill Democrats. “[Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid really, really didn’t like Daley,” Thrush reported. In the end, the president’s allies in Congress had their way.
If Jarrett were to be somehow subordinated to the position of presidential librarian tomorrow, there is no evidence to suggest that Obama would become the master of his own destiny, deftly moving to the center while ensuring his left flank remained intact. Those searching for scapegoats in Jarrett are really performing mental gymnastics to avoid acknowledging the obvious: Obama is the problem.
This post has been updated since its original publication.