This fascinating and a little bit creepy NYT piece by Jo Becker is worth reading in its entirety. A few excerpts:
President Obama was in a bind, and his chief of staff could not figure out how he had ended up there.
Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church were up in arms last fall over a proposal to require employers to provide health insurance that covered birth control. But caving in to the church’s demands for a broad exemption in the name of religious liberty would pit the president against a crucial constituency, women’s groups, who saw the coverage as basic preventive care.
Worried about the political and legal implications, the chief of staff, William M. Daley, reached out to the proposal’s author, Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary. How, he wondered, had the White House been put in this situation with so little presidential input? “You are way out there on a limb on this,” he recalls telling her.
“It was then made clear to me that, no, there were senior White House officials who had been involved and supported this,” said Mr. Daley, who left his post early this year.
What he did not realize was that while he was trying to put out what he considered a fire, the person fanning the flames was sitting just one flight up from him: Valerie Jarrett, the Obamas’ first friend, the proposal’s chief patron and a tenacious White House operator who would ultimately outmaneuver not only Mr. Daley but also the vice president in her effort to include the broadest possible contraception coverage in the administration’s health care overhaul. [. . .]
Mr. Biden arranged for Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York to meet with the president and express the church’s view. With the support of some of the president’s political advisers, Ms. Jarrett pushed back in her own meeting with Mr. Obama, aides said. And she signaled Ms. Sebelius to “keep fighting — I’m with you on this,” said one former official with knowledge of the matter.
But by January, even friendly voices were accusing the president of throwing “his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.” Democratic members of Congress were fielding calls from constituents who felt, in the words of one, that this was a “big blunder.” In a senior advisers meeting, the president, exasperated, ordered his senior staff to “figure it out,” one participant said.
But if some expected significant backtracking, they were mistaken. In phone calls the next week, the president outlined his compromise: the burden for the coverage would shift from employers to insurers, but women who worked for religious organizations could still avail themselves of the benefit.
“When the president called me,” said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, “I could practically hear Valerie’s influence.”
Radical and "ubiquitous":
Partly it is her ubiquity, the guiding hand in everything from who sits on the Supreme Court to who sits next to whom at state dinners, the White House staff memos peppered with “VJ thinks” or “VJ says.” When the billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett showed up for a private lunch with the president last July, the table was set for three.She accompanies him on the campaign trail, too.
Ms. Jarrett often serves as a counterweight to the more centrist Clinton veterans in the administration, reminding them and her innately cautious boss that he came to Washington to do big things. Some of his boldest moves, on women’s issues, gay rights and immigration, have been in areas she cares about most. If Karl Rove was known as George W. Bush’s political brain, Ms. Jarrett is Mr. Obama’s spine. [. . .]
She is the only staff member who regularly follows the president home from the West Wing to the residence, a practice that has earned her the nickname “the Night Stalker.” By day, Mr. Obama is “Mr. President” to her, but in social settings, he is just “Barack.” When the Obamas take an out-of-town break, she often goes along.
A couple of facts surprised me. 1) She and Condi Rice are pals:
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice occasionally uses Ms. Jarrett, with whom she has become friendly, as an informal back channel to pass along foreign policy views, officials said.2) She has full-time Secret Service protection:
A case in point is her full-time Secret Service detail. The White House refuses to disclose the number of agents or their cost, citing security concerns. But the appearance so worried some aides that two were dispatched to urge her to give the detail up.Read the whole thing.
She listened politely, one said, but the agents stayed.
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