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The problem with Valerie Jarrett

Two things are guaranteed to inspire envy or hatred in Washington: access to the president and the power to turn that access into action. The person who has both is guaranteed to face a torrent of criticism, deserved or not. In the Obama administration, no one is more envied or hated because of her access and willingness to use the power that goes with it than Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president.

Jarrett oversees the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and the Office of Public Engagement. She is a sounding board and go-to person for an array of state and local officials and advocacy groups. She is an early warning system for the president. She is the bearer of bad news when he opts to go in a different direction. And she is unafraid to play the enforcer when folks run afoul of her or Obama. Her title and duties are a bit squishy and diffuse in a town that likes clear lines of authority. But, as a Democratic strategist told me, the folks saying they have no idea what Jarrett does “know exactly what her job is. That’s why they’re upset.”

A particularly nasty piece by Carol Felsenthal in Politico magazine calls on Obama to “Fire Valerie Jarrett.” Noam Scheiber of the New Republic also took a critical look at Jarrett’s performance in a piece that hit the Web on Sunday night. His is a fairer look at her tenure because it recognizes that “Jarrett’s role is far more textured” than the popular narrative against her. He writes: “Jarrett’s job may be nothing less than to reflect the most authentic version of Barack Obama back at himself.”

To be the president’s spine, to be his connection to the real him requires one to have known him at his core before he catapulted to the top of the political order. Jarrett has known the Obamas for more than 20 years and helped put the former community organizer on a path that would eventually lead to the Oval Office. And once inside, Jarrett has used her power in the way countless others have.

The one difference between Jarrett and others who have wielded the same kind of power in the West Wing is that she is a woman. Were she a man, her job would not be subject to endless “What does he really do?” questions. Were she a man, she wouldn’t be called “the night stalker” for walking with her longtime friend back to the private residence. Were she a man, her willingness to use her elbows to do what she thinks is right for the president would be applauded.

As Scheiber pointed out, her maneuverings got the president to hear and eventually adopt financial reforms advocated by former Fed chair Paul Volcker and Bill Donaldson, the former chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Felsenthal slammed Jarrett for not only pushing for Eric Holder to get the attorney general job but also for standing by him when things got tough. Good for Jarrett. Like Jarrett, Holder has had his problems, but there’s no denying he has been an excellent chief law enforcement officer And Jarrett has been a behind-the-scenes force on gay rights.

By no means am I saying that Jarrett has done her job perfectly or without missteps. As a rule, perfection is a stranger in any White House. But when it comes to representing the president, providing him counsel, being a truth-teller with the way-back cred to tell him what others might be too afraid to and being unflinchingly loyal (sometimes even to a fault), Jarrett is in exactly the right job. Man or woman, if Jarrett were not the object of ire, someone else with her access and power would be. That’s just the way Washington works.

© 2014, The Washington Post