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Valerie Jarrett on unique "First Friend" role in Obama's White House

Valerie Jarrett
Valerie Jarrett 13:15

The following is a script from "Valerie Jarrett" which aired on May 22, 2016. Norah O'Donnell is the correspondent. Henry Schuster and Rachael Morehouse, producers.

Rarely does one person in the White House have the influence that Valerie Jarrett has had. She holds the job title of senior advisor, but she's more than that. The president has said she's his best friend. She told us she's involved in nearly every decision that's made, including the choice of his chief of staff or who should sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. And that has sometimes caused friction in a White House that prides itself as being no-drama. As the president enters his final months in office, we talked with Valerie Jarrett about her role, the president's legacy, and one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business on their agenda -- the future of the U.S. Supreme Court.

[President Obama: Today, I am nominating Chief Judge Merrick Brian Garland to join the Supreme Court.]

Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, left, and CBS News correspondent Norah O'Donnell CBS News

Norah O'Donnell: Valerie, this is probably one of the last big fights of the president's term in office. And he can't even get Senate Republicans to give him a hearing. Most Republicans won't even meet with Judge Garland. Does that say something about President Obama's inability to reach across the aisle? To have friends on the other side?

Valerie Jarrett: Absolutely not. I don't think this is about friendship. This is about politics. I think the Republicans have made the political determination that in this election year, in this very toxic election year, I would add, that it's in their political advantage not to do so.

Norah O'Donnell: But in two terms, seven years, why hasn't the president been able to find a Republican that he can call up and say, "Help me out on this"? Does he have any Republican friends?

Is "raw political calculus" holding up the Supreme Court nomination? 02:13

Valerie Jarrett: Oh, absolutely. He can call them. And they want to help him out. But the fact of the matter is their leader won't let them.

Their leader in the Senate, Republican Mitch McConnell, has told President Obama there will be no hearing on his Supreme Court choice. Despite the fact that Garland was confirmed to the D.C circuit -- considered the second highest court in the land -- back in 1997 with the majority of Senate Republicans voting for him.

Norah O'Donnell: Isn't that part of the president's job? Is to convince people on the opposite side to do something like this? To get a judge up on the Supreme Court?

Valerie Jarrett: Well, the way you convince them is to try to put enough political pressure on them so they'll do the right thing. And I think that that momentum is building from the American people, and that's where the pressure will come.

Norah O'Donnell: So that's the strategy?

Valerie Jarrett: That is the strategy.

Norah O'Donnell: So since the president doesn't have a personal relationship with Republicans, instead you're gonna go to the American people--

Valerie Jarrett: This isn't the matter. I-- I have to--

Norah O'Donnell: --and put political pressure on them? It's a campaign? It's a political campaign--

Valerie Jarrett's extraordinary family tree 05:11

Valerie Jarrett: I have to interrupt you to say this is not about personal relationships. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they're chummy. This has to do with whether or not they've made the political calculus, the raw political calculus that it is in their self-interest not to give a hearing to Judge Garland. When they decide--

Norah O'Donnell: Does the president--

Valerie Jarrett: --when they decide it is in their self-interest, they'll do it. And it is our job, yes, to launch a campaign to encourage them to do their jobs. Just as the president did his. Nothing to do with personality. Nothing to do with schmoozing. Nothing to do with whether or not they're buddies. This is raw politics, from their perspective. And has nothing to do with what is been in the best interest of the American people.

Norah O'Donnell: Isn't politics about schmoozing, though? And isn't politics about friendship?

Valerie Jarrett: No, politics is about figuring out what you think. This kind of politics is about trying to fi-- is about figuring out what you think you have to do to get reelected. And what we've seen, Norah, time and time again, is the Republicans decide they can't even come to the White House and go through a receiving line. They can't even show up at a state dinner, because they're afraid of-- about what the consequences will be if they do.

Norah O'Donnell: Maybe they don't feel welcome here.

Valerie Jarrett: Oh, that's not true. I-- and I think if you ask them, they will say, "Absolutely." They're more than welcome. They're more than invited. This has absolutely nothing-- nothing to do with the president's willingness to reach out to them. He has, time and time again. And he has on the Supreme Court--

Norah O'Donnell: But Valerie, it's front page news when the Republicans come here to the White House. That shouldn't be front page news.

Valerie Jarrett: No, they should be here all the time. And if they would accept the invitations, they would be here all the time. I want to completely--

Norah O'Donnell: This has nothing to do with the president's style of leadership, or his ability to reach across the aisle?

Valerie Jarrett: I want to completely debunk--

Norah O'Donnell: It's all the Republicans' fault?

Valerie Jarrett: I want to completely debunk this notion that if the president were just simply more friendly and more outgoing and schmooze that this would change. This is simply about the Republicans making the political calculus that to be friendly to the White House is not in their interest. That's the decision that they made when he was first elected. And they've stayed steadfastly true to that for the last seven years, to the detriment of the American people.

There's no stronger defender of the president than Valerie Jarrett. And in a town where power and influence are measured by proximity, few are closer to the president. You can measure her importance by her address in the White House West Wing.

Norah O'Donnell: Who else has had this office?

Valerie Jarrett: The two that I'm aware of are Hillary Clinton and Karl Rove.

Norah O'Donnell: There's a lot of history then in this office.

Valerie Jarrett: There is a lot of history and I've tried to make a little bit of my own.

Part of that history comes from Valerie Jarrett's unique position in the White House. It's different from Karl Rove's. He was known as President Bush's brain and served as his political advisor. She's got at least three formal job titles, including senior advisor. But perhaps the most important part of her job description is the role that doesn't get listed -- being first friend.

Norah O'Donnell: You are a senior advisor to the president, but you are also his best friend. I can't think of another example in a White House where there's been that kind of relationship since Bobby Kennedy and President Kennedy. It's a very unusual role.

Valerie Jarrett: It is.

Norah O'Donnell: And doesn't that create a conflict?

President Obama and White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett Getty Images

Valerie Jarrett: No, not at all. Not at all. I think it enables me to do my job really well. And everybody comes to the table with different strengths and different perspectives. And so the fact that I've known the president and the first lady for 25 years gives me a perspective that maybe others don't have.

And a relationship that none of his other advisors has either. She's probably the only White House aide who calls the president Barack when they're off the clock. She also told us, she considers the president and first lady the siblings she never had.

Valerie Jarrett grew up an only child in an extraordinary family: one of the most prominent African-American families in Chicago. Her grandfather, Robert Taylor, built much of Chicago's public housing. Her father, a doctor, helped integrate St. Luke's hospital. And her mother has a Chicago street named after her for her work in early childhood education.

Jarrett, a lawyer, made a name for herself in Chicago politics working for Mayor Richard M. Daley.

And that's where she met Michelle Obama who had recently graduated from Harvard law and was looking for a job.

Valerie Jarrett: I invited her in for an interview. It was supposed to be 20 minutes. It lasted about an hour and a half. About halfway through I realized I was no longer interviewing her and she was now interviewing me. So a few days later I called her up and I said, "Well, what do you think? We'd love to have you." And she said, "Well, my fiancé doesn't actually think it's such a great idea." And I said, "What?" And so she said, "Yeah, that's right." So she said, "But I really am interested. So would you be willing to have dinner with us?"

Valerie Jarrett with the Obamas

At that dinner, she met Barack Obama for the very first time. And they shared an instant connection, in part shaped by a world view by childhoods spent abroad.

President Obama was born in Hawaii and lived for four years in Indonesia. Valerie Jarrett was born in Iran, and spent the first five years of her life there, where her physician father went to help start a new hospital.

Valerie Jarrett: That bond that we had from having lived in cultures very different than our own and how that shaped our view of the world was a bond that we had that day. And I remember being struck by how talented the two of them were.

Norah O'Donnell: Who impressed you more?

Valerie Jarrett: They both impressed me. They impressed me individually and they impressed me as a couple.

Michelle Obama took the job with the city and that began a quarter-century long friendship.

The Obamas bought a home on the same street as Jarrett's family.

Norah O'Donnell: So your house is, like, a block away from the president's house?

Valerie Jarrett: A block away, yes, indeed.

She's the only White House advisor who at the end of the day regularly joins the president in the private residence. She says she keeps the personal and political separate but she earned the unflattering nickname, "Night Stalker," because some at the White House felt she could influence his thinking.


Norah O'Donnell: You've clashed with Robert Gibbs about the first lady. He's gone...

Valerie Jarrett: Oh my gosh. That's nearly seven years ago, Norah. You're going back to ancient history--

Norah O'Donnell: Well-- but that-- well, that's the point. Rahm Emanuel, the first chief of staff, you clashed with him, he's gone. Another White House chief of staff, Bill Daley, he lasted just about-- a year. You're one of the few advisors that's still here.

Valerie Jarrett: Yeah. Yeah.

Norah O'Donnell:: Is your relationship with the president more important than any other advisor?

Valerie Jarrett: No. No, and I-- as I have said to you many t--

Norah O'Donnell: Oh, come on.

Valerie Jarrett: No, I don't think it is. And I think, look. There are many people with whom-- I have had great relationships who've left. Much to my regret. Sorry to see many of them go. I think this is a real tough environment.

Norah O'Donnell: Really? The word is, Valerie, that you were, in part, responsible for their leaving.

Valerie Jarrett: Well, I think that the only-- many of the people left on their own, because of their own decisions. I'm single. My daughter is grown. I live a mile away. I'm able to give this job my 24/7 in a way that many people aren't. And it's reasonable to say that people would burn out.

Norah O'Donnell: But the president's had five chiefs of staff. He's had one--

Valerie Jarrett: It's a tough job.

Norah O'Donnell: --he's had one Valerie Jarrett.

Valerie Jarrett: Yeah. Yeah. My tenure is unprecedentedly long. That's true, as a senior advisor. But I came in knowing I was going to stay until the end, if the president would have me. That's the commitment that I made to him.

She's also made a commitment to push the issues she cares about.

["Every single day families around our country share the bond of devastating grief caused by losing their loved ones to gun violence."]

Jarrett reveals connection to gun violence 00:34

In the president's second term she helped write executive actions on gun control and immigration that went around Congress after the president failed to find common ground.

She's at the center of the administration's efforts to raise the minimum wage across the country and to expand paid parental leave. She's also pushed for criminal justice reform -- one of the few areas where the president has found bipartisan support.

[ "It is one of the few regrets of my presidency the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better."]

Norah O'Donnell: Does the president think he's contributed at all to that rancor?

Valerie Jarrett: Not to the rancor, no. I think his tone and his approach has always been one of bringing people together. He's been the unifier. He's one that focuses on what we have in common, not what our differences are.

Norah O'Donnell: But he said it's one of his regrets.

Valerie Jarrett: Well, it's his regret that he wasn't able to break this terrible fever in our country among the Republican Party. So sure, he says to himself, you know, came-- he came to Washington elected with this enormous-- optimism, which he still has about our country. But he's deeply frustrated and disappointed that he hasn't been get-- been able to get the Republicans to work with him on issues which were traditionally bipartisan/

Norah O'Donnell: I keep thinking of the president's elections, and those posters that said, "Hope. Change." And in his final year in office, where's the hope and the change? You can't even get a Supreme Court nominee a hearing.

Valerie Jarrett: Well, the hopes and change, Norah, doesn't come from Washington. The hope and change comes from the American people. And the president's still extraordinarily optimistic about the future of our country. I mean, just look at what's happened in the last seven years. Our unemployment rate going from 10 percent down to five percent. Our automobile industry back. Ending two wars. 20 million people with health care, many for the first time. We have a great deal to be proud of-- in terms of our accomplishments.

Valerie Jarrett on Obama's post-January plans 00:50

Valerie Jarrett is now helping to shape President Obama's legacy after being by his side for the last seven years. She says if there's one thing she's learned: it's that the president needs a friend in the West Wing.

Norah O'Donnell: What's the lesson, then, of your relationship with the president and the first lady?

Valerie Jarrett: Well, I think my advice to the next president would be to make sure that in your circle of advisors, you have somebody you've known for a long time. People who can set the tone of being-- being comfortable pushing back. Telling you when they don't think that you're right.

Norah O'Donnell: The next president needs another Valerie Jarrett.

Valerie Jarrett: I didn't say that. I said the next-- one good thing is the next president gets to start all over again.

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