clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Full transcript: Former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett on Recode Decode

She’s now on the board of Lyft and helps with the Obama Foundation.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Valerie Jarrett Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Town & Country

On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Valerie Jarrett, a former senior adviser to President Obama, joins Swisher onstage at South By Southwest 2018. The conversation ranges from political advice (How can the Democrats take back the House?) to personal (What advice would Jarrett give her 30-year-old self?).

You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. Today, we’re going to play an interview I conducted at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, at Vox Media’s The Deep End. I talked to attorney, businesswoman and civic leader Valerie Jarrett, who was a guest on Recode Decode while serving as an adviser to President Barack Obama. We talked about diversity and inclusion in the tech industry and how to lead in the #MeToo era. Let’s take a listen.

So I have been lucky enough to have so many badass women I’ve been able to interview at South By Southwest.

Valerie Jarrett: Do I get to be a badass woman?

You’re the baddest asses of them, except ...

I like that. Now I’m happy.

Thank you for coming. We’ve been talking backstage about a lot of things. I was telling Valerie ... It would be remiss if ... Valerie just got into the news this week for being on The View, which is fascinating. Can you illuminate us on, you said that it was a little more nuanced, what you were trying to say in reference to Farrakhan and Tamika Mallory.

We were having a conversation about Tamika Mallory, who is one of the young leaders of the women’s march movement, and we were talking about leadership. And I said, “Look, leaders have to meet with all kinds of people that they don’t agree with.” And I said, “I meet with the Koch brothers or Rupert Murdoch to try to get criminal justice or immigration reform done.” I said, “But the difference is associating yourself with their values.” And what she did was not make it clear that hate is not tolerable under any circumstances.

So it wasn’t about her working with them. That wasn’t the issue. My issue was that you can’t in any way endorse hate if you want to be the leader of an inclusive movement. And I think what you’re reacting to is that people tried to say that I was saying it was a moral equivalent between Farrakhan and Koch and Rupert. It wasn’t about that.

It wasn’t about that. So, you were not making that comparison?

No, I was saying, “Yeah, everybody meets with those people, but you can’t associate yourself with their values if their values are about hate,” and that’s what she was not as good about doing with Farrakhan. But she’s new, she’s young, she’s growing, and hopefully she’s learnt a lesson.

Let’s talk about that idea of ... We have a lot of things to talk about. Valerie just recently joined the board of Lyft, she’s on the board of another internet company, and we were talking a little about tech stuff. She’s been on my podcast, I think it was right after you left, right before the transition.

Right before?

Let’s start by talking about what you’re doing now, what is it like being about ...

What is it exactly that I’m doing?

What is it you do exactly now?

A few things. So yes, I joined the board of Lyft. I’m also on the board of 2U, which is an internet company that’s helping provide a platform for universities to offer digital degrees online, which is ... And the whole point is 2U, it’s taking the education to you, and their motto is “There’s No Back Row.” And so I think a lot of people who wouldn’t have access to higher education are now going to have it.

I’m also on the board of Ariel, my father was one of the first investors there 35 years ago, so it’s great to be on that board. I’m helping President Obama with his foundation. It’s been so therapeutic for me after leaving the administration to be able to continue doing what I care so much about it and that’s helping — and I’m looking around this audience — helping young people get civically involved and realize that the world is in your hands and we’re counting on you, and giving them the tools that they need in order to go forth and change the world.

I’m also advising Attention — ATTN — and I think they’re cool in providing content to help educate people about what’s going on in the world, and I’m writing a book, and I’m teaching at the University of Chicago Law School. That’s it. I’m exhausted.

Is that all to forget what’s going on right now?

Yes. I said therapy, didn’t I? I meant it. I can’t tell you how many different cities, I think I’m in seven cities this week, I’m keeping myself at a frenetic pace so that I don’t stop and look and see what’s going on in the world.

Tell us what you think about what’s going on, you can’t ignore it.

Where would we begin?

The glasses come off.

I was just thinking about it and I started to steam up. I said two things that probably sounded opposite. On the one hand, I take the long view and I know that our democracy has always been messy and we take two steps forward and one step back. I just think that we’re in a interesting, scary kind of moment here and technology has a lot to do with it. The way information flows so much quicker than it used to. And I’m nervous, I’m nervous. I think what gives me hope is seeing those kids, let me stop calling them kids, those amazing young people in Parkland. That actually gives me hope.

You just met with them?

I met with a few of them in New York earlier this week, they recognize that it’s a long road. They had a good, quick victory in Florida. It wasn’t everything we would have wanted to keep guns out of the wrong hands but it was progress, and it definitely would not have happened had it not been for their organization and energy and commitment. And the question is, how do we sustain this over time? And you know, they’re planning a big march for March 24 all over the country. If you can’t make it to D.C., join the march in your community.

It’s a show of force, but we know you have to convert that show of force into action, which has to be sustained, and to the degree we can help them do that, we want to. But I will tell you, they’ve figured it out. They’ve figured out the code.

So, the first part, you’re optimistic about the long view?

I’m very optimistic about the long view. If, if, and it’s a big if, we can keep this level of civic engagement. Part of why I love spending time on the Obama Foundation is it is committed to helping this next generation appreciate the fact that our country, our government, is only going to be as good as we insist that it be. And how we put pressure and how we do what we can do as individuals is really what’s going to depend whether or not my optimism is merited.

So, what’s your second part?

My second part what?

You said you had two parts.

The first part is that optimism. The second part is I’m terrified.

Tell us about the terrified part.

Just terrified. All right, I’ll put it to you this way ...

Because you’ve been in that Oval Office.

That’s my point. That’s why I’m terrified. Well, I’ll tell you what worked for us, and that’s really all I will tell you is, is that, we tried very hard recognizing that the leader of the free world needs to be disciplined, have a team around them that is sharp, and you have structure and organization. Everything that went to President Obama had been reviewed by our entire team. We gave him memos in writing, lengthy memos the night before, which he read before he came down to the office the next day and then we debated them and then he made decisions.

And I think given the magnitude of the challenges and the complexity of what’s facing, not just the United States, but leader of the free world means leader of the free world, I think that discipline is really important. And so right now, it would appear from the outside to be a tad bit chaotic, wouldn’t you say?

So, what does that mean? How does that translate inside there?

I don’t know, I don’t. I can’t even imagine really, honestly, what that must be like inside. My stomach hurts just imagining how tense it must feel on that team because it’s disorderly. You don’t know what’s gonna happen from one moment to the next.

Is there something good about that? He’s saying he’s done things presidents wouldn’t have done, like talk to Kim, or done whatever.

What I said about that the other day, which didn’t get as much pickup as my first comment was, look, I think we should all prefer diplomacy to fire and fury, because fire and fury is scary. Those words are scary. Normally, what you would do is make sure that you do a lot of due diligence and you know what your rules of engagement would be, what you are willing to give up, what you were insisting upon. He’s trying it a different way.

I think it’s ... Do I wish his way to be successful so that we all don’t have to worry about a nuclear North Korea? Well, sure. We all should want that. It wouldn’t have been the approach that we would ... We’ll see, I guess is the answer to your question. It’s too early to tell whether or not it’ll work.

When you talk about that — and then we’re going to move across these — when you talk about that, having that inside this organization, what are the problems that could just flat seat of your pants or what is the danger, besides the nuclear button part, which is obvious?

The sense of chaos is destabilizing to everyone. Not just us, the American people, but the world. As you travel, as I know you have, and I certainly have, people are wringing their hands because it’s not what they’re used to from the United States. They’re used to us being the measured adults in the room. It appears chaotic and people don’t know what to think, and so then they don’t know whether they can rely on us because we seem to be kind of all over the place.

If they can’t rely on us, then that means when we ask them to do things, will they do them? And we have to ask them. Remember we were talking backstage about Ebola, part of the reason why we didn’t have a pandemic of Ebola is that the United States led our allies with our military to contain it. That takes goodwill. People have to have confidence that if you say you’re going to do X and they do Y, that you will do X if they do Y. That’s leadership. And so the question that we don’t know the answer to, which causes me some anxiety is, what will happen if people can rely on us the way they always have.

In a crisis like in Ebola?

In a crisis of any kind.

Ebola specifically, they had a very robust science group at the White House that was leading it.

We had a very robust group. We did. We had a very robust science ... President Obama, some of his most favorite times was when he met with his outside and inside science advisers. He kept saying, “They’re logical. They actually like research and they like evidence and then they tell you things based on evidence and research.” That’s how we rolled.

And without it?

Pardon me?

Without it having ... because there isn’t a science ...

Is there anybody working in the science, in OSTP as we called it?

There is not anybody. No. There is no head of OSTP.

That’s a problem.

That’s a problem. One of the things you guys had pushed was, you did a report on AI, you did a report on jobs, on STEM, on coding, the importance of coding. And I know just this week, Wyoming is now requiring its students ...

Did everybody hear that news?


Pre-K through 12th grade, every year, you got to have computer science. Why? Because you need it. Which is really exciting, I think. Part of what we did — and Megan was a huge part of this when she was in the White House, Megan Smith — is starting with young folks and girls in particular. What can we do to make it interesting and exciting? How do we teach it in a way that people see the value of computer science? How do we change the curriculums, encourage people?

And then I say we, I mean the collective we in the universities. So whether it’s University of Maryland in Baltimore or Harvey, must change their curriculum. And now, their number of women who are enrolled in computer science, has gone way up. What do we do in the workplace to both attract and retain women and people of color? And you know, in computer science, women stay three years? Well, that has to change. And it’s a whole bunch of stuff including like paid leave and equal pay and paid sick days and workplace flexibility and affordable childcare.

And a lot of the tech companies might do that, but it’s also culture, and that starts at the top. And what are we going to do to create an inclusive culture where people appreciate that to be globally competitive, you need to have people who don’t think just like you do surrounding you.

Which was one of the pushes around in the Obama administration, the idea. Now it’s moved to the states. It seems like that’s where ... you know, it’s happening in Wyoming. There’s lots of states.

There are increasingly numbers of states that are beginning to appreciate the fact that they want to have a workforce that’s going to be employable. You can’t necessarily now rely on the federal government to do anything, and it’s appropriate that a lot of that action happen at the state, and also happen within companies. I’m really proud of the fact that Lyft has an 18-month maternity leave and paternity leave. Men and women treated equally. You can take three months paid leave that’s not for the birth of a newborn.

They’re working really hard to figure out how to attract and retain a diverse workforce, doing implicit bias training for people who are doing the interviews so that you make sure that you are objective and you’re not biased in the interviewing process, making sure the diversity that diversity is a part of the culture of the company. And that requires the people at the very top to embrace it. And it can’t be done by government alone, you need the private sector.

But in doing that, in doing that, is ... The government has always been part of job changing and job training, and now job training is almost negligible by the federal government. These issues that are coming up — AI, robotics, automation, self-driving — all have implications on jobs.

Yes, they do. We already, though, as you know, have a large number of tech jobs that are going unfilled. One thing I’m very excited about is there’s now an umbrella organization made up of about 450 entities that are working on everything from computer science for all, tech hire. They’re traveling around the country, they’ve been to 70 cities, really focusing on and generating interest in doing kind of a bootcamp for technology. There’s an initiative also as well called Jobs where they’re going around, literally going around the country and doing marriages between companies, employers and talent.

Because if you don’t see the talent, you don’t know that it’s there, how are we going to hire it? And they’re helping mentor people so that they can apply for jobs. At the same time as we might be disappointed in the federal government, we also have to recognize we’re going to have to do what we can do. For example, one good example would be, the Girl Scouts, they’re working with ages sixth grade through senior year in high school on both coding as well as cybersecurity and trying to get young girls interested in those fields.

It has always been a combination of care of government, the private sector and civil society. And we’re going to have to rely on government other than the federal government. But that doesn’t mean we should let them off the hook. And I think we still have to continue to put pressure on Congress and the administration to step up on this.

We’re going to take a quick break now for a word from our sponsors. We’ll return to this live interview from South By Southwest 2018 in a minute.


Let’s talk about the dysfunctional political system, which I think is ...

That makes me sad.

It does, but does it come as a surprise to you? Because President Obama was running on this hopeful way that shifted so dramatically. How do you, having done all that work, what is that like? And then I do want to get into some of the stuff that’s causing social media all kinds of stuff, the inability of the government to recognize what the Russians were doing all that time. So let’s first talk about how you look at the dysfunction after years of uplift, in a lot of ways.

Well, it was uplifting, but I have to tell you since the first day we walked into the White House, the Republicans made their decision that they wanted to try to stop any progress at all. And when I think about it now, what I probably underestimated was how wedded to the status quo they were. And a lot of that’s driven by special interest groups. If you look at the ... There was nothing more profoundly disappointing to me in eight years than Congress’s willingness to just pass the most simple law to close the loopholes on background checks.

Why would you want anybody who shouldn’t have a gun, who’s a threat to themselves or to anyone else, to have one? 32,000 people die every year, two-thirds commit suicide from gun violence. It was just the simplest thing, but it was a good example of where — because the NRA is so powerful in how it funds members and how it looks at every single vote and will cut off that funding and run somebody against them if they would have, for example, supported the background checks — that you have to have a counterforce to that and that without that counterforce, that is not just ...

The Sandy Hook parents spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill lobbying, and when one of them told me, they asked a Republican, “Why didn’t you vote for it?” And they said, “Yeah, we know the American people want it, but they don’t want it like it’s their No. 1 issue. Whereas the NRA will take our funding away if we don’t do this.”

So I say all this is backward and say, let’s not say it was all peaches and roses while we were there. It wasn’t. But we really tried to continue to have a united front to push Congress to work with governors and mayors and pass laws around the country; paid leave, paid sick days, lots of cities and states have passed laws for those two, for example. And then work with the private sector and then the not-fo- profit society.

Were you surprised by the backlash, or what Donald Trump managed to pull together in terms of mood and tone and frustration and anger?

Yes. I was caught, very surprised. I was very surprised.

Why’s that?

Well, because I thought that a country that elected Barack Obama twice would probably not elect Donald Trump. But then, I keep in mind that 43 percent of the eligible voters did not vote in the election. And so when 43 percent sit on the sidelines, that to me is a more concerning question. Like what can we do to get people to appreciate that their minimum responsibility of being a citizen in this great country is to vote, and then let’s go from there. And so part of what I’m excited about now is, for example, in the march on the 24th, the big part of it is going to be voter registration in every city.

These young people have figured out it’s not enough to just march, you have to vote as well. And so that gives me reason ... You see, I keep coming back to my optimism, because otherwise I go into a dark place and I don’t want to go there. I really wanted ...

What did you learn from reflecting on it? Like, because you have to not just say, “Oh, they’re a bunch of racists, a bunch of idiots.” There’s something at the heart of it, there’s economic disruption, there’s, I mean ...

I think there was a lot going on. I think there are a lot of people who legitimately just wanted to shake up the status quo because they’re suffering and they just want it to do that. I think a lot of people, as I said, didn’t vote. A lot of people may have thought that it didn’t matter, that their vote didn’t matter. And it’s probably that latter group that I really want to help them understand, “Yeah, your vote really does matter.”

And I think there has been an awakening. Look at the women’s march that we had the day after the inauguration and look at the energy we’re seeing right now. As I’ve traveled around the country, I’ve met so many people and women in particular who want to run for office. And I always say, we would be far better off if we had more women in elected office than we do right now. So I think, again, I keep focusing on the positive because I can’t do anything about the negative.

I’m curious about what it is you learn from it. Because again, you can’t fully dismiss the feelings.

Oh, I don’t dismiss anything at all.

Do you think you miss something or did you all feel like too elite to ... Because I remember being with a bunch of Washington reporters early on when Trump announced and I have relatives in different parts of the country who liked him, who what he was saying was reaching them and some of it, what he was saying, I was like, “Oh, he’s kind of right about people feeling left out, he’s kind of right.” And the reporter, which was really interesting, was like, “Oh, he’s a clown character. He’s not gonna make anything. The Republican Party’s not going to let him.”

That was what they kept saying. They’re not going to allow it. I said, “Well, who’s not gonna elect him?”

I think — and this gets back to technology — that the traditional norms for how party politics work are changing, but let’s hasten to say Hillary Clinton did win the majority of the vote. She lost by not that much, so it was a close election. Our elections tend to be close because our country is divided. Even when Barack Obama won twice, it’s not like it was by a huge, huge margin. I think everybody always knew it would be close, but we thought it would tilt on the side of her winning. That doesn’t discount the anger at all. I travel and I talk to a lot of these people who are suffering and as the income gap between the very wealthy grows, that frustration turns to desperation.

When you’re going into the next elections, are you very involved in politics now or that’s enough for you?

At the moment I’m catching my breath, but I will get back involved, I’m sure.

What would be the key things in terms of the next, the midterms, what is the messaging that the Democrats at least have to at least return? Or should it not be Democrats? Should it be another party? Should it ...

Look, I’m a Democrat. I think we go back to our core values. We are about inclusion, we’re about giving everybody a chance for opportunity, we’re about a big tent where there’s room for everyone. I think we cut against the sense of us being isolationists and that we recognize that we’re a part of the world and there are huge markets outside of our shores and we ought to embrace that opportunity, that we may be a great country but we’re not the only country on earth and that we can learn a lot from people from all over the world. And part of what has made this nation strong is our commitment to immigration.

As you well know, you look at the folks who have invented these amazing companies in the last 20 and 30 years, many of them had been immigrants.

A lot of them.

I say we embrace all of that. And that that is a tent where we should be growing the pie, not carving up the pieces more or moving decks on the ...

Do you think the Democratic party has gotten that message?

I do.

And yet we still have Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, the same characters.

2020, I think it’s too early to tell. We’re talking about the mid-terms, which are coming up right now, and I think we’ve got around the country some good people who are running in a real opportunity there. I think as for 2020, I think it will emerge over time. We don’t necessarily know who’s going to emerge today. And I think again, people who get engaged in supporting candidates and work for those candidates ...

One of the things that I learned in ’08 and then I again in ’12 is it’s really hard to run a presidential campaign. You need a lot of people on the ground making huge sacrifices who are committed to your vision for America. I think with young people in our camp, we win, if they’re engaged.

Having run a successful campaign with a candidate who wasn’t known early on, and you picked the right one, you backed the right ticket.

I’m very proud of that.

Who would you back now?

And I’ll tell you why it’s too soon because ...

And what does that candidate look like?

Well, let me tell you where Barack Obama did, which is why I think the underdog in that case won, he said, I have to earn every single vote, which means I have to lift up my hood and let people kick my tires and get to know me. One of the advantages of being the underdog is you do know you gotta get out there, and so he spent a lot of time in Iowa. And then we lost New Hampshire, which was just gut-wrenching at the time, but it probably was a really good thing because it forced him into a protracted primary election, which took him all over the country.

And humbly and with great humility, he introduced himself over and over and over and over again to the American people, and I think what they picked up in him was authenticity. They felt like at the end they knew him and that they could count on him to keep them safe and look out for them. I think that message still works, and so the person that’s the type of person I’m looking for, someone in this country where my family lives and I love and has been very good to me, that I know that my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren will be better off as a result of that person’s leadership. That’s what I want.

How are they doing? They seem like they’re having a ball.

The Obamas?


They’re good. They’re good. They’re good. I think they’re good. Yeah. Let’s put it this way, they’re good personally, I think it’s hard ... People always say, “Oh, isn’t this so hard for you to watch?” No, because it was not about us. It’s no harder for us than ... It’s much harder on people who are worrying if they’re going to lose their health insurance, and that’s really hard.

Or be deported.

Or the kids or the adults who are worried about being deported. What we’re going through pales in comparison to that. But, they are also young, fortunately, and have a couple of chapters left in their life. And this foundation is going to be an opportunity for both of them to roll up their sleeves and get to work and continue to be a force for good and to help groom the next generation of leaders.

I think they both feel very strongly that our country needs to have multiple people just like Barack Obama. We can’t put all our eggs in one basket and expect miracles to happen. We need to have a grassroots of leaders all across the country.

True. But they’re so cool. They keep their ...

They’re very cool. Particularly when out with sunglasses or she’s dancing with a 2 year old. They’re cool. They know they’re cool.

They know they’re cool?

They are just ... you know why they’re cool? Because you feel like, “I could hang out with you. You’re normal.” Part of why I was so happy to see Mrs. Obama meet with that 2 year old is that the 2 year old was looking up to her as the queen and what Mrs. Obama wanted her to see was like, “I’m just like your mom. I got kids, I still remember what it was like to have young kids,” in the hopes that you couldn’t be, which you can see.

And I think for both the president and the first lady, President Obama and Mrs. Obama are role models for all children — not just black children, all children — about what a healthy family looks like, what people do when they love each other and respect each other, how you can raise your children in I really abnormal environment and have them turn out to be really great kids.

We miss the healthy family. We do.

They’re still there, and we have to look other places to find ...

Are they going to be different ex-president ...

What do you mean?

Different presidents do different things. Do you see much more on the national scene, outspoken, or ...?

As you’ve seen so far, President Obama has been very measured and has given a lot of space to his successor. I think what he wants to do is ... I mean, you don’t see him out there leading the opposition. He’s much more comfortable in the space of doing something positive, so he would rather help aspiring boys and young men of color to get the same opportunity as every other child and work with a group of them and mentor them and see them go out and change the world, or to have a training day the way we’ve had in Chicago now a couple of times with folks from all over the country, and then in the summer we had with people from all over the world, who came to Chicago and shared best practices for how ...

I always call it ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That’s where their head is. And then they’re both also writing books, which I think will be an important part of history.

Everyone’s writing a book.

Everybody’s writing a book. Got a lot to say.

Let’s talk about, and then we’ll get some questions, social media, because we talked about that backstage. Do you thInk the Obama administration did enough to understand what was going on with Russia and then the tech companies? Like go through ...

Look, I will say ... Let me back up from the question and say, we are in the middle of a revolution. The technology revolution is like no revolution we’ve ever seen before in our country.

Which you guys used to great effect.

We did, but I will confess to you, I remember President Obama was in office when he asked me what I know about Twitter and I said, “You mean like all atwitter?” That was in 2008, “I had no idea what you’re talking about.” Look where we are today. A lot happened in eight years.

We were on the front end of that wave going into it, but I will say, you were in this ... I think we got kind of so focused, particularly early on, kind of with the work and the policy and getting it right. Remember, we were in the middle of the worst economic crisis of our lifetime, not since the Great Depression, and trying to get that ship back in order.

So you didn’t have time to say ...

We didn’t tell the story as much as we should have, and so therefore, we were not as adept at using the technology. You have the White House briefing room with the traditional sources of press. And as time went on, we learnt more effectively. So yes, we spoke to them, but we also had President Obama meet with the YouTube celebrities and they came in and advised him on how to communicate. Some of them have followings that were, at that point, bigger than his, and they’re 19 years old. And he said, “Well, how’d you do it?” And we really listened and learned, and so I think we got better at it as time went on.

I really don’t want to say too much about Russia because there are other people who are obviously spending a lot of time looking at Russia right now. But I think that in retrospect, you make the best decisions you can with the information you have. He used to say to us all the time, “When are you going to bring me the easy decisions?” And we’d go, “We took care of those. We’ll never bring you that, we take credit. You get the tough ones where it’s judgment and you make judgment calls every single day.”

And with the benefit of hindsight, we would all maybe do things differently in our life. I feel confident that based on what he knew when he knew it, he made the best decisions he could.

Was there great awareness of it or just a vague awareness that there were ...

In some places, there was a greater awareness than others. But certainly we’ve learned a lot more since then.

What should happen now? Because the federal government is not really engaging on it, the White House is absolutely not engaging on it, senators, various Senate committees ...

And they passed a law and that law has not been implemented and it should be.

The sanctions?

Yes. I think that Congress needs to pay more attention to the implementation of the laws that they pass.

Well, they can’t implement them if the White House says it, correct?

They have oversight authority, they can do stuff. They could get more engaged if they want to. We should be very worried about another country meddling in our elections, and it has nothing to do with the outcome, it has to do with the meddling. Keep out of our elections and we should be ... And as you heard our intelligence community saying, we haven’t been directed to do so. We can’t sit without that direction, why wouldn’t we want them out of our election?

Where does the fault lies? Is it the tech companies? Because you all were close to the tech companies. They were big fans of the Obama administration.

Look, I think ... Were the tech companies aware of everything that was going on as they have grown larger and larger and larger? Well, of course not. So they’re going through a growing pain as well. They’re trying to figure out what’s happening with ... how are their tools being used as a force for evil. And fixing that, I don’t have the ... You would have a better idea how to fix that than I would, but we have to ... It should be a united front of the private sector and government saying, “What could be more key to our democracy than preserving the integrity of our voting?” And we should be all really dedicated to that.

Would you as a Democrat be tougher on tech companies now? Because a lot of them are now. All of a sudden, the Democrats are sort of anti-tech or more ...

Well, I don’t think it’s anti-tech. I think tech is an incredible tool for good and I think we all ... I’m not anti-tech at all. I want to figure out how to make tech stay as good of a tool for good as it can and do no harm, or do as little harm as possible.

What do you expect will happen to them?

I don’t know.

You don’t know?

I don’t know. I think it will be interesting ... I don’t know whether Congress will step in or whether ... I know obviously they’re taking a hard look at their internal procedures and policies and seeing what they could do. I’m sure this wasn’t an outcome that they would have wanted, but normally, government regulates when there are threats.

And you anticipate that or you don’t know?

I gave up predicting Congress a long time ago.

We’re going to get to take some questions from the audience, but I want to talk lastly about the #MeToo movement. How do you look at this? You’ve been a strong woman in office.

Look, I’m old enough to remember when I first started practicing law, that a certain amount of abuse was just a given.

Meaning what? What happened then?

Not just me, people around me. Just rude comments, how you looked or just inappropriate jokes. And honestly, I think my generation of women, we were trying to prove that we could be just like the guys and we wouldn’t be offended. We put up with a lot of stuff we shouldn’t have put up with. And so I think it is terrific to see the show of force and the camaraderie and support the women are showing women, and that men are showing women who are coming out and talking about something as horrendously traumatic as sexual harassment and the long-term effects that it can have on people.

It takes a lot of courage to come forward when that first person, and second person, and third person. And as you’ve seen this, people have come out over time, even months later, people finally say, “Okay, I now have the strength to do this.” And I think that that is great and we ought to be supporting that movement and we ought to be looking at ways in which we can create a work culture ... Well, let me go bigger: A society that is free of sexual harassment, where everybody’s treated equally. And that means, “Don’t touch me if I didn’t invite you to touch me.” It’s just not that complicated.

When people talk about the backlash, I’m like, “That’s an excuse for just continuing to not respect women.”

Why did you imagine there is that backlash?

Pardon me?

Why do you imagine there is that backlash?

I think it’s an excuse. I think men can conveniently say, “Oh, well, I can’t travel with a woman now, I guess.” Well, yes, you can. Don’t go into her room at night and don’t harass her. It’s not that complicated. Yes, you can be alone with a woman. Just stay in your chair and she’ll stay in her chair.

You know the expression, Mike-Pence-ing it?

I haven’t heard that expression, but I know exactly what it means. I’m quick, I’m quick. But to the broader point, #MeToo and #TimesUp, which I think is also very important, this isn’t just about really famous women coming forward, but it’s the factory worker who has no voice and no ability to pay for her defense. And so raising funds to help those women is very important.

And I should mention that, May 5th and 6th in Los Angeles, Tina Turner and I are convening a summit called the United State of Women. We had one back in 2016. It was very successful. We had 5,000 folks from around the country and the world coming.

Super cool ads you have.

Very cool ads. Thank you. And there was, obviously, people participated digitally as well, so we decided to do this one in LA. It’s a diverse city where culture meets business, and we thought it important to have it on different coasts than the one we had last time. And we’re inviting people to come in and share best practices again. We’re going to put a spotlight on stories that we’ve heard as we’ve traveled around the country, where people are figuring out, “Well, how do you close the pay gap? What are the nuts and bolts for how a company that’s interested in doing that would do it? How do you ... what is the appropriate basket of paid leave and paid sick days in workplace?”

But it’s gotta move beyond sexual harassment.

It’s the whole package of how are we ... I look at it this way, yes, it’s important that women are protected. Full stop. Next sentence. It is also a business imperative, if you want to attract and retain the best talent you can to have values and policies that are consistent with the 21st century worker. And people can now work anywhere they want to in the world, and how are you going to compete for talent? And if you don’t recognize the fact that people have lives and they get sick and their parents get old and they have babies and they shouldn’t have to worry about being intimidated in the workplace.

If you build that kind of culture, you will be more productive, more efficient. You’ll have less turnover, and in the private sector, you will make more money. And so, I’m about making that case, because I think it is more sustainable than just only saying it’s the right thing to do. I think there’s a business imperative for it as well.

The United State of Women ... Last thing I want to ask you about is the things like Charlottesville and racism, because that gets where you’ve just mentioned, especially a lot of the hotel workers, persons of color more than white women. A lot of the complaints around all this has been too focused on wealthy white women, essentially. When you look out at some of the stuff that’s come out, the racial remarks, the things around the president, the enablers around him that didn’t leave when they might have, you were there. What goes into those calculations and how did you feel when you saw ...

I don’t have any idea what went into his calculations or the people around him. I can only tell you, we went to great lengths to be very clear about hate and to say that doesn’t reflect our values. And that there’s no place in our administration or our circle for those values.

But having been ... You just said, this country, which elected Barack Obama twice, then to see that, as a person of color, what was that to see ...

It was very painful. Obviously very painful.

What’s the anecdote to that.

I think we have to be more inclusive and people have to — and I’ve been actually spending a lot of time trying to think this through because part of how technology gets in the way now, for this goal, what I see is ... Look, when I was growing up, it’s a pretty young audience. I listened to Walter Cronkite, whatever he said was true, and he said it once a day on the evening news, and his staff had all day to figure out the truth. And there was only one night where he separated the fact from editorial, and it was about Vietnam. And it was groundshaking when he did it, because he never did it. And then you had entertainment

News also used to be the loss leader. Now, news makes money, which means it goes into entertainment much more so. And then you add to that these devices that we’re all so addicted to, and you source on your device ... You decide what comes in, and it comes in from your circle, and so what do we do to get outside of that small little echo chamber that is getting tighter and tighter and tighter, and actually talk to people with whom we disagree, with whom we have different life experiences, and actually hear them and empathize with them and try to imagine what life for them is like?

I think part of what we saw, for example, why you saw such a diverse group of people come out after Laquan McDonald’s murder in Chicago, is that I think it was jolting to a lot of people to learn that black people might be treated differently by some police than white people. I have people in my office come up to me and said, “I had no idea that there was a talk that black families gave their sons.” That’s second nature in my household. We all had that talk. Even though I wasn’t a boy, I was in the room when that talk was happening.

When you see a person shot in the back 16 times, it’s searing, and you have no choice but to feel empathy. And so how do we allow ourselves to feel that empathy without a tragedy happening? How can we just ...

Because you imagine it would happen with these devices, they’re addictive, they’re ...

Well, this is what I’m worried about, is how can we ... I’m interested in, and I shouldn’t just say worried. How can we use those devices to be opportunity for that kind of a conversation? And the problem is ... And look, just look at my Twitter feed and you’ll see people say things on social media that you would never say to somebody’s face.

You’ve got some ugliness this week.

You know it. Some of it you read it, and some of it you tune out, but it’s scary out there and it prevents people from ... The stakes are so high if you say one thing that’s even slightly misunderstood, you get this huge backlash. The question is, how do you use it as a force for good? And I’m relying on you, young people, and you’ll figure this out too. I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m worrying that it is helping pull us further and further apart. People who look at MSNBC don’t watch Fox and vice versa.

And so, what did we do on our own to facilitate those opportunities for a better understanding? We’re a richly diverse country, I call it richly diverse. That’s a strength and we’re turning it into a weakness.

We’re going to take another break for a word from our sponsors, we will return to this live interview from South By Southwest after this.


Questions from the audience, right here.

Tell me your name.

Onsaline Joya: My name is Onsaline Joya.

Hi, Onsaline.

Onsaline Joya: Hi. In what ways do you think things would’ve been different if the Democratic presidential candidate had been Bernie Sanders?

I don’t have a crystal ball. I really have no idea. I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. The thing that I try not to do — because it makes me crazy — is to wonder what if. And there are lots of what ifs that might have led us to a different place. I think the more important question is, what do we do now going forward? How do we build a coalition of the willing that believes in the values that Bernie and Hillary believed in, and Barack Obama believed in?

How do we make that big tent where those three leaders all fit really comfortably? Because I think the bigger the tent, the more powerful the tent. And that means that we have to also give ourselves some freedoms within that tent to differ on some issues. We don’t have to be 100 percent in agreement with one another on everything.

What do you think he tapped into though? There was something deep, very similar to Trump in a lot of ways. The dissatisfaction, the system’s rigged, the ...

He did tap into something, and I think, particularly with young people, he really did. Well, you told me you were Bernie supporter?

Onsaline Joya: I am still both a Bernie supporter and a Hillary supporter.

What is it about Bernie that you found attractive? Oh, I like this. We’re turning the tables.

Onsoline Joya: One of the things that I found attractive about Bernie Sanders is how liberal or progressive he is.

Yes, that’s true. And that is attractive. But I will say one of my big things now is, I think we should have mandatory voting. It’s never going to happen, but it’s my fantasy, which I get to have now. And the reason why is that I think if everybody votes, the country actually comes a little bit closer to the middle. And yes, Bernie, very progressive, liberal values, but the question you have to ask yourself is, if he had been elected, would that have translated into getting anything done? You can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.

That’s a good point.

And compromise is the nature of the beast. And the question I just would say is that, I encourage us going forward to find a candidate who will compromise to get things done, not the values, not your core values at all, not your core beliefs, but realize that there is another half of the country out there and we have to make sure that we’re at least trying to figure out how to get then some of what will make them feel better. No, I don’t think we should compromise on things like keeping guns out of the wrong hands, but surely there must be matters where there’s a line in there. I think it matters where there’s wiggle room, and I think we’re getting so that we’re not good on the wiggle room, and that’s a problem.

Next question.

Melissa: Thank you. Hey, I’m Melissa.

Hey, Melissa.

Melissa: You have had, and obviously continue to have, a very successful career related to the law and public policy. And I wonder what advice you have for young women who are interested in those areas, and in particular young women who are planning to run for office.

Well, you are a dream come true. I’ll tell you why. Because about two years ago, my daughter, who’s now in journalism but at the time was a lawyer, interviewed me. And the first question she asked me is, “What would you tell a 30-year-old Valerie Jarrett?” And that’s what my book is going to be about. So I just sold the first copy of my book to you. You know what, I will say this, and I did sell the book to you and so I’m serious about that. But I’ll also say this, that I think part of where I got tripped up early on is that, I really wasn’t listening to the quiet voice inside of me.

I was listening to my family that was proud because I was the first lawyer in my family, and I was listening to my friends who said, “Oh, you got that fancy office in the Sears Tower.” And I was kind of going through the motions, but I wasn’t really passionate about what I was doing. And it wasn’t until I walked away from corporate law and I walked into City Hall, where my office was a cubicle facing the alley, that I actually found where I belonged. And it was this calling for public service, starting out locally in a city that I love, Chicago, where I just wanted to help make my city better and I wanted my clients to be the city of Chicago, and all of the taxpayers in the city of Chicago, and I just felt big doing that.

So part of my advice to young people is, first of all, don’t make a 10-year plan like I did, because it was wrong. And I followed it longer than I should have until I ... Anyway, read the book and you’ll see what I did in the plan, but the most important, you just have to listen to yourself, and it is a quiet ’my voice’ if you give it power. And also, the good thing about your generation is that your life — not like our grandparents who would do whatever they want to, one place and stayed in the same place their entire career, you have multiple chapters. Don’t feel like you have to do everything on Day One and pace yourself. It is a marathon.

The final thing I’ll say on this is that, people often ... And yeah, I know you, can you have it all? Well, not all at the same time and you shouldn’t expect it, because if you think you’re having it all, you’re probably doing it all. And that’s what I tried to do. I tried to make baby food from scratch. I was a single mom. I tried to work till 2:00 am, I tried to be like the perfect everything. Why was I making that baby food? That didn’t make any sense. I cut the baby food. She’s fine, she’s fine. I went and bought those little jars, but I had to like drop a thousand balls before I realized that. Give yourself a little bit of a break and don’t try to be so diverse.

Why didn’t you run for office?

I’m too old.

I like your little hand thing now.

I’m too old. I don’t think so. I’d rather help you guys ...

Why didn’t you run for office? Did you think ...

Why didn’t I?


I thought about running for office ... I really thought being like mayor of Chicago was the coolest job, because I’d worked for three mayors, as it turned out. And if Mayor Daley hadn’t run for his last term, I actually thought about it then. And then when President Obama ... But he did, so I wasn’t going to run against him, he was my mentor. And then when President Obama was elected to the presidency, I thought about putting my hat in the ring for his job, but our governor now is in prison, so I’m glad I didn’t do that. That could have ended very poorly, and I don’t know that I have the fire in my belly at this stage to do it.

I would really much rather find some young people here and get behind you and help you not make any mistakes that I may have made. I think that’s the phase of my life I’m in right this second. But if I change my mind ...

Let me know. All right, next question. Well, she’s got it right here and then there and then here.

Patrick: I’m Patrick.

Hey, Patrick.

Patrick: Right now, I’m just ridiculously inspired by all the political activity I’m seeing, all the people getting involved. I’m positive we are going to crush the GOP in 2018, and everything is going to go well as long as the state of terror reigns.

But I also worked in the 2010 cycle and my question for you is, with the virtue of hindsight, what advice do you have to all of the passionate organizers that are lighting fires right now? Because lighting fires is hard, but keeping them burning is even harder. Do you have any advice for us on what we can do better this time?

Yes. 2010 was terrible. We kept thinking that President Obama’s popularity was transferable, but you can’t do it with one person. You have to have, as you said, the energy on the ground. And it’s hard. And I remember, he invited in some of the demonstrators who had been in Ferguson, Missouri, after the Michael Brown stuff. And they had been out there demonstrating for months. He brought them in the Oval Office, he said, “Look, it wasn’t that long ago I was a community organizer, and you’re cold and you’re knocking on doors and they’re slamming your face in the door, and it is not easy work.”

And so, I think you have to recognize that it is hard and it is the most important thing you’ll ever do, to fight for your democracy. It is so important that you do it. And if you do do it, a man named Barack Hussein Obama can get elected not once but twice. Crazy things can happen if you do it. And the question is, how do you keep momentum going when it isn’t the top of the ticket? Or it isn’t the most inspirational candidate but it’s somebody who will be really competent and good?

And I think sometimes we expect too much of our candidates. They need to be honest, they need to have integrity and character and a vision you share. And then you’ve got to just get out there and do the hard work. And you’ll also have to pace yourself, as I was saying earlier about being perfect, which means don’t run so hard that by September you’re exhausted, because the election is in November. Pace yourself to get through the election and then go rest and then get ready for the next one.

And not just Congress, you should care who is in your state legislatures. They’ve draw these maps and all kinds of crazy ways, and Eric Holder is now running a commission for that, but the real way to do it is what the Republicans started doing 25 years ago, and that is supporting candidates for these seemingly nondescript roles that are extraordinarily important. Understand, up and down the ticket, you have to get involved. Who’s on your school board? That’s a big deal for how your kids are going to get educated. And I think unfortunately we just get seduced by the big things, but it’s the little. If nothing else, we’ve had a civics lesson.

I think people thought, well, they didn’t have to vote in ’10 because Barack Obama was the president. How come Barack Obama got anything done without a Congress with whom he can work? So we’ve learned that lesson, we learned a lot. We’ve learned enough lessons to not let this stuff happen again.

Probably we will. Next question. Two more questions. This one and then right here in front.

Tom Louis: Hey, I’m Tom Louis, thanks for coming. This is really informative. You talked about the core values that you feel like the Democrats need to push on. Obviously, that’s the spirit of the party, so it’s very important. But I think it’s clear enough that the Democrats are also struggling to kind of find their voice, their messaging voice, because right now we don’t know why we’re losing so much in so many different ways, except for these what should be easy elections that we’re still closely winning in Alabama and elsewhere.

Well, Alabama hadn’t got a Democrat in a very long time.

Tom Louis: That’s true.

And they have described Democrats down there as being as bad as child molesters. So that was a huge victory. And that was African-American women who just got out there and worked hard and voted.

Tom Louis: I feel like — and this is just my thinking — I can’t help but feel that as the Democrats are trying to find their voice that they’re missing the real elephant in the room, which is that I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of telling those core values through the lens of economics, both at a macro level, not at an individual level, and why that’s good for people and their checkbooks.

I think what he is saying is that a lot — but I agree with you — that the Democrats just feel anti-Trump and that’s not enough.

It’s never enough to just be anti something, you have to be for something.

Particularly him.

People emotionally, psychologically, have to be for something to sustain it, back to the earlier question. And so I think if you don’t like the message, develop a message you do like and then go on social media with your message and encourage your friends to support your message. This is the whole point of Parkland. It’s just totally different now, the paradigm is, it’s really in your hands. You have much more power. You don’t have to simply rely on the party leaders. Although, I do support our party leaders, I think we have ...

Who is the party leader?

Well, there isn’t one.

I like your face. Your face says a lot more than your answer.

We don’t have one. And I think in a sense, to the people who are coming up to me every day and say, “Why won’t Barack Obama be that leader?” is that he fills up so much space in the room and what he really wants to do is help you emerge as a leader. And you emerge as a leader. And that means you do have to take the long view and you have to recognize there’s going to be a period of time where there isn’t any one leader, but we’re going to have a bunch of leaders. I bet you we have a ton of people running for president and we’re going to be able to kick their tires and lift up the hood and see what’s there.

Probably 32 of them. Two more questions. One here and then right here. So right here first because he’s had his hand up for longer. And then I see you right there.

Questioner: Thank you so much for hosting. This has been awesome. One of the questions that I have, which may seem a little bit uncomfortable, is that you’ve worked in public policy for a long time, whether it’s with mayors, President Obama, particularly to the office of the president, and seeing so many people come through. Is there any thread that ties all our previous presidents together, something which as speaking to so many Americans, appeals to Americans, that someone connects Donald Trump to Barack Obama, to President Bush, to Clinton? I find that sometimes it would be so easy to look at it as we’re almost two countries battling for this one office. But do you find that there is something similar between all of them? Anything that somewhat connect them all together?

Yes, Valerie, what do President Obama and Donald Trump have in common?

Questioner: Is there something?

I’m always saying, find something positive to say. So this is what I would say, really. It doesn’t get as much attention as perhaps it should. I can’t say that it was as welcomed as maybe I would have liked it to have been in this last transition, but one of the things that we’re very good at doing in this democracy is a smooth transition of power. And don’t underestimate how important that is. And I always point to President Bush because that was my experience. I co-chaired President Obama’s transition, and President Bush and his team, even though we ran a campaign where we were very critical of almost every policy he had, the professionalism and openness and willingness of his team to ensure that when we walked in the door, we were as prepared as we could be, I can’t speak more highly of what he did.

And we tried to do the same thing. I say that I don’t feel that they received our offer as well as we did, because we were anxious to get as much information, because then you’ve got to hit the ground running. And as I have talked to historians, that has been a tradition in our country for a very long time. And I think it distinguishes us from a lot of other countries that don’t have a smooth transition. You can fight a big fight in a campaign and when the campaign is over ...

And the other example that I would give you is that there wasn’t a time when we called any of President Obama’s predecessors and ask something of them where they did not respond immediately. And I think that reflects well, and so far that hasn’t happened, but I would like to think if President Trump needed his predecessors, that they would serve our country. It’s a small club. They tend to rise to occasions. That’s been my experience, and that makes me feel really good.

I’m curious about that picture, though, you all took when the transition was happening. You were right in the front of it.

Oh, that was the day after the election, give me a minute to catch my breath.

That was a fantastic picture.

But do you know what the worst part of that photo for me was? I saw the cameras and that was like my happy face. That was like the best I could do. It’s not like they caught me by surprise. I said, “Oh, here they are. I better look like normal.” But look, we’ve been up all night, that was like, I don’t know, 10:00 or 11:00 the next morning, and there were a lot of people who ... I was old enough to remember when bad things have happened in our country. I remember when JFK was assassinated, King was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. I remember when Nixon stepped down.

So I’ve seen some bad things. And when I said that to my daughter, who was distraught, she’s like, “That’s not helpful.” I said, “But it is the reason why I take the longer view, is that we do have these disruptive things that happen.” And as my mother always says, “It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do about it.” And that’s what I’m counting on for you.

If you read some history, the whole thing around Jefferson and Washington and Hamilton was pretty ugly. Very ugly, actually.

We’re doing this?

I’ve been reading the Hamilton book for six years now, but I’m just telling you, it doesn’t go well for them at all, and they barely make it. They barely do. They hated each other. Last question, back here for Valerie and thank you for Valerie.

You’re welcome.

By the way, that was a great picture. “That was sad,” in the words of Donald Trump.

Tony: Hey, I want to thank you. My name is Tony.

Hi, Tony.

Tony: I want to appreciate your public service because I come from a background of public service. I was a City Commissioner for like five or six years. I come from the border, South Texas. I was a City Commissioner, I was on the ground, and I understand what the everyday person in my community deals with. What I want to know is, what is your input in what we can do as ... I’m a lifelong Democrat. And I understand where President Trump comes from and where the Democratic nominee came from.

Tony: What I want to know is, what can we do as a party to unite and find a new leader, because right now, and he ... I’ll leave it at that right now, we do not have a leader of the party and that is my biggest concern right now. I’m a lifelong Democrat and I want to see something achieved. I want to see victory in 2020. What can we do as a party to find someone that can unite us all? At this time, we don’t have that.

That’s a good question, because we talked backstage about how Republicans do fall into line. The pretzelness that Paul Ryan is displaying is almost breathtaking, for example.

But they have, what, 17 people who ran for president. A lot of people came out, and I think because we have a Republican in office, we’re going to have a bunch of people who are going to run as well. And so yes, it would feel great if we had that one person right now who we could look up to and say, “He’s taking us through what is a really painful period.” And I think ...

We had Oprah, but she’s disappointed us at this point.

Oprah decided she didn’t have the fire in the belly. I think what we might want to get comfortable with is having multiple leaders until somebody bubbles up. And it’s very disconcerting in that middle period when you don’t have that one person who you’re really counting on, but it forces us to the point about getting engaged on the ground, to be the leaders in our community. And don’t underestimate your community and how you can use your community, particularly now with social media, to galvanize.

There’s no one leader in Parkland, but look what they’ve done. They don’t have a leader. There’s a bunch of them that are all, and they coordinate sometimes, and they don’t. And they get together over social media, they get together in person. I think leadership is going to look differently as we move forward than perhaps it has in the past. And it’s more comfortable to have one person, particularly, you might disagree with that one person, but that’s your person and you can disagree him if you want.

And I think we’re going to just be uncomfortable for a while, and that discomfort in our country leads to change. And so embrace that discomfort and let that be a part of what fuels you to get out there and work your butt off to make sure that we can take back both the House and the Senate, and the world will be a better place.

All right, on that note, Valerie, thank you very much. Valerie, you’re always classy. Valerie, always classy. Thank you.

Thank you.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.