The Gendered Lens of Power: Valerie Jarrett and Her Critics


Lilly J. Goren

Valerie Jarrett has been the subject of quite a few column inches since the midterm elections. Much of the commentary is easily broken down into two mostly opposing camps: those who are calling for her ouster from the White House, or at least a demotion from the policy realm and the daily work of the West Wing; and those who are defending Jarrett from what they say are sexist and gender-based attacks. Both sides have some merit. Jarrett has a broad and loosely defined portfolio in the Obama White House and she also seems to have unfettered access to the president and first lady. At the same time, she is characterized not as “Obama’s brain” but as the “Obama whisperer” or “the Night Stalker.” The images that are run alongside the more critical articles don’t imply her power so much as suggest insidiousness.

The initial volley in this latest round came from Politico Magazine, where Carol Felsenthal published a lengthy assessment of the need to “Fire Valerie Jarrett” – as the article was titled. Felsenthal includes many of the long-standing critiques of Jarrett, going all the way back to the beginning of the Obama Administration in 2009. Donna Brazile and Jonathan Capehart both responded defending Jarrett, with criticisms as well, but noting that Jarrett was being more clearly targeted because of her gender. At The New Republic, Noam Scheiber published a long piece about Jarrett, calling her “The Obama Whisperer” accompanied by a stylized image of a Jarrett-like woman whispering into the president’s ear. Without even delving into the extensively sourced article, the image alone implies clandestine operations, conspiracies, and secrets.

Jarrett’s place in the West Wing is wide-ranging and therefore nebulous—thus making it easier to criticize her because her responsibilities are harder to distinguish and easier for those with clearer responsibilities to argue that she is more destructive than constructive. Her connection to the Obamas is long established and extensive, and in many ways, she contributed to Obama’s positioning for his presidential run. In this regard, her connection to the Obamas is much like Karl Rove’s relationship to George and Laura Bush. Rove was famously dubbed “Bush’s brain;” Jarrett has never been cast in a similar light, though she is hardly lacking intellect, training, or essential experience. In many ways, she has more substantive policy experience than Rove did before he started working for the Bushes, though Rove had more extensive campaign experience. Both Karen Hughes and Harriet Miers have occupied similar advisory positions in regard to President George W. Bush, and some of the same kinds of critiques came at Miers in particular – though again, her position in the White House was generally more clearly defined. Jarrett’s relationship to President Obama was not grounded, as in the case of Rove and Hughes, in contributing to campaign strategy. But if Rove was considered to be “Bush’s brain” in that he was a kind of extension of Bush himself and a reflection back of Bush, Jarrett is in a very similar position. So how come Jarrett has not been considered “Barack’s brain” in the same way? Being dubbed “the Night Stalker” is much more undermining, casting doubts on Jarrett’s integrity.

Many of the criticisms directed at Jarrett over the years are those heard in every administration, especially in regard to someone who has significant access to the president. And there are lots of folks (supporters of the President and detractors alike) who think that whatever Jarrett is doing or has done is wrong and that she needs to go. At the same time, when the second sentence of Felsenthal’s article is about pushing Jarrett to the East Wing so she can “hang out with Michelle Obama and the White House social secretary” all the critiques that follow will be seen through a gendered lens—in a kind of reversal of Lady Macbeth’s famous line wanting to be “unsexed,” Jarrett has been “gendered”—perhaps not overtly in terms of her actions, but the implication is that the place where she can “do the least damage” is hanging out with the social secretary or becoming a librarian (of Obama’s Presidential Library). Brazile and Capehart push back against this line of criticism, though not by taking on the images or the implications. Furthermore, neither defense gets at the more insidious nature of the critique, namely that Jarrett operates covertly, clandestinely, and perhaps inappropriately. Jarrett’s critics have long cast her as a kind of Iago; she is portrayed as scary and vengeful even as she quietly whispers in the ear of the president. The externally constructed impression of Jarrett, subtly portrayed but starkly at odds with the consumed image of Karl Rove, is that she embodies both insidious and gendered power and the anxiety thereof. This, again, reinforces the problematic that women face in positions of power—how women exercise power at the very highest levels remains controversial and suspect, even if they are deserving of criticism, it comes through a gendered lens.

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