The past few days have seen a couple of major pieces about Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president who people love to complain about. One, by Carol Felsenthal, is extremely mean-spirited and basically just asserts without evidence that firing Jarrett would solve some unspecified major problems for Obama. Noam Scheiber's considerably more careful profile is something anyone can learn a lot from, but basically ends up with the conclusion that Jarrett ends up re-enforcing certain ideological tendencies of Obama's — in particular, an aversion to populist rhetoric — that Scheiber dislikes.
Missing from both, I think, is an examination of the most salient thing about Jarrett, namely that people really hate her. Not the person on the street (who probably has no idea who she is) but DC power players. You hear far more negative things said about Jarrett by current and former administration figures and Capitol Hill Democrats than you do about anyone else in the Obama orbit. One possible interpretation of this is that she's just really awful — and I think this is what a lot of people in the media have come to believe second-hand — but I think that's a mistaken one.
Some of it is surely sexism. There is a set of gendered scripts about the eminence grise versus the scheming Lady MacBeth type that some Jarrett commentary plays into. Still, she's hardly the only woman on the White House staff. To understand why Jarrett is so hated, you have to understand her unique structural role in the Obama administration. She's the person in the building who is supposed to represent Obama himself and his unique perspective on his own presidency. That naturally pushes her into conflict with an array of other figures who represent a more generic version of a Democratic Party administration.
The partisan presidency
When politics was less polarized, White House staffs were personalized. JFK's team was full of Kennedy people, not generic Democrats. After all, at a time when the parties weren't ideologically coherent there wasn't really any such thing as a generic Democrat or Republican. The president was relatively unconstrained vis a vis the party system on the Hill, and both the team and the policies they pursued could be very idiosyncratic.
But starting with Ronald Reagan and continuing through to Obama, we've seen the rise of what American University's Richard Skinner calls "the partisan presidency." The president works as the leader and agent of a relatively disciplined, relatively coherent political party. That's reflected in his staff.
In the early years, the Obama administration was often said to be full of "Clintonites." In truth, it was just full of experienced Democrats. A lot of them had worked in the Clinton White House, but others had been with Tom Daschle or Dick Gephardt or Max Baucus or other prominent Congressional Democrats.
Jarrett is the exception to that rule. She wasn't in national politics before 2009 and when Obama leaves office she'll go wherever he goes. She the representative of his interests — his priorities, his legacy — as opposed to party or interest group concerns.
This is a valuable role to play, but it very naturally sets her up to be hated. In addition to her formal role as Barack Obama's personal representative to outside groups, her informal role in the counsels of state is to get in people's way and make calls that wouldn't get made in a fully genericized White House. Naturally, that ends up with her stepping on toes and making enemies. Not because she's doing her job poorly, but because that's her role in the administration. And it's a very difficult job.
The haters next time
It'll be interesting to see how future administrations handle this. The partisan presidency is a relatively new phenomenon, and like other consequences of the rise of ideological parties in the 1980s the political system is still learning to adjust to it. It's possible that there is a superior solution to the one Obama hit on. But you have to understand it as a structural issue.
Even as the presidency becomes de-personalized, the president is still a person and he is going to want his personal interests to be represented in his own administration. Future presidents are likely to find themselves with the opposite of Obama's Valerie Jarrett problem. Jarrett's is clearly willing to be disliked, and that makes her more effective in her role as Obama's personal advocate. The problem for future presidents is that they may not be able to find a Jarrett. Whoever they task with serving as their alter ego in staff meetings and calls to agencies and outside stakeholders will end up wanting to go along to get along.
There's considerable evidence that personal conflict makes organizations more effective. But at the same time, people don't enjoy it. Pushing on the tension between the president-as-person and the president-as-abstract-agent is a useful role, but not an especially rewarding one and it's not obvious that every president will have someone on hand to do it.