"The higher you rise, the harder it is for people to give you bad news, and the harder it is to find friends you can trust," explained senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett. "And thus your circle shrinks." As that circle shrank for one individual, who rose from being a community organizer on the streets of Chicago to occupying the most coveted office in the country, Jarrett became evermore important in counseling the now-President of the United States, Barack Obama.
Conversing with a Harvard Kennedy School audience last Friday, and introduced as the Nation's First Friend by Professor of Public Service David Gergen, Jarrett was humble in her words, brilliant in her insights and passionate in her pursuits. Taking the young couple of Michelle then-Robinson and Barack Obama under her wing nearly two decades ago, Jarrett put a face, demeanor and thought process behind the inner circle of this nation's President. She spoke on issues ranging from the character of Mr. Obama; to understanding the process of real change; to the media's complicity in fragmenting American society; to how the administration can maintain a push for gender equality amongst an already-packed White House agenda; along with other issues. She personified the reassurance that supporters of Mr. Obama craved as outsiders looking in to a deeply polarized Washington Cirque du Soleil, where scoring short-term political points seemed to trump furthering the public good, and where doubts surrounding the President's ability to manage, lead and govern continually made headlines. In response to such criticism, Jarrett had no hesitation in putting those claims to rest.
"President Obama hasn't changed since I've known him. He hasn't. He's always been disciplined, empathetic, temperate, intellectual, inquisitive, compassionate, self-critical, and an excellent listener." Jarrett continued to note that the President's capacity to multitask effectively was incredible. "Going from one meeting on terrorism, to another on mortgage foreclosures, to another, and another ... his focus and ability to pay attention, coupled with the energy to see conversations through without rushing to a decision, but rather bringing a discussion to its logical conclusion is remarkable."
Turning to a dysfunctional Washington and the first anniversary of the Obama Administration, Jarrett reminded the audience that Rome wasn't built in a year. She went on to say that real change requires constant individual and collective action, patience and civility from both sides; the common good of the American people must always be the driving force, rather than short-term politicking. Referring back to the inaugural address, she stated that the President's tone reflected a sombre understanding of the long road ahead, where he focused on collective engagement, long-term patience and the sheer toughness of implementing change either alone or quickly. It was against this backdrop, Jarrett continued, that some astute politicians then decided that the best way to create a crisis for the Obama presidency was to not engage at all, which was ironically the exact sentiment captured during the campaign that allowed Mr. Obama to win the election. In a unique request to all those listening, Jarrett implored the younger generation to encourage the older generation to exercise more civility in national discourse. She went on to say that this incivility is only exacerbated by the media's complicity in polarizing the American people.
"While I always watch Morning Joe when I wake up to get a sense of what's being said out there," confessed Jarrett, "today, it seems as though the media picks someone from the extreme left and someone from the extreme right, pits them against one another and compels the American people to pick a side. Extremes are not good for the country. We are a nation of moderates and reasonable discourse, and thus the media has furthered the polarization of important debates." In discussing communication strategy regarding healthcare, Jarrett stated that they lacked a counter-term to 'death-panels', citing that it's much easier to scare people than to inform people, and reducing a complex issue such as healthcare into a sound byte is neither useful nor productive. With President Obama planning to release his own version of the healthcare bill this week, Jarrett cautioned that while the bill won't be perfect, "we must never let perfection be the enemy of the good." Indeed, with countless crises facing this administration, both keeping an issue on the radar and pushing it forward are equally important.
With this in mind, concern was raised regarding the challenges of gender equality and its potential to swiftly drop to the waist side as other key issues consumed the President's agenda. "He has me and he has Michelle, his secret weapon," laughed Jarrett, chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. "He has two daughters and was raised by a single mother ... he doesn't need the reminder nor the encouragement to keep gender issues a priority." In another concern, posed by mid-career master's candidate Ashley Judd, the President's character and aversion to conflict was called into question, to which Jarrett professed, "He lacks a mean spirit, and instead channels his anger in constructive ways ... though the birthers tick him off." Civil engagement, constructive dialogue, putting the American people first above petty politics, and testifying to the still-intact character and prowess of the President were all running threads throughout the evening.
In the final moments of the discussion, Jarrett was encouraged to share her learned wisdom with the eager young minds that overflowed onto makeshift seating. As an individual who has experienced the non-profit sector, the corporate world and public service, Jarrett had no shortage of advice to bestow. "To thine own self be true," she lectured. "You must find your passion and never be afraid to venture outside your comfort zone ... opportunities never knock at opportune moments, right?"
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