White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett on Wednesday disputed the notion that the President Obama operates a tight-knit boys’ club of top advisers and aides and bemoaned the hardball politics of Washington, D.C., saying Chicago politics are “child’s play” in comparison.
Speaking to audience of mainly women at the Atlantic’s “Women of Washington” series at the Newseum, Ms. Jarrett said Mr. Obama relies on the advice of several top women aides and Cabinet secretaries, especially Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is in charge of implementing the president’s signature health care law.
“When people say it’s a boys’ club, it’s a little insulting to the women who are actually playing very critical roles,” she said. “You may not see them on television as much, but that doesn’t mean you should underestimate the impact they have and the influence they have with the president.”
Besides Mrs. Sebelius, Ms. Jarrett named Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and newly-tapped Secret Service Director Julia Pierson as women with prominent and important roles in the administration.
Inside the internal operations of the White House, Ms. Jarrett said several key women have the president’s ear when it comes to strategy and organization, citing deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco; Danielle Gray, the deputy director of the White House National Economic Council; and White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler is integral.
“We don’t make a move without consulting with Kathy Ruemmler,” she said.
Throughout his first term, Mr. Obama has been criticized for preferring male-dominated environments, such as frequent golf outings with mostly male colleagues and friends and off-hour hoops with NBA basketball stars, male Cabinet officials and congressmen.
The criticism reached a crescendo in 2011 after Ron Suskind’s book “Confidence Men” quoted veteran Washington political adviser and former White House communications director Anita Dunn calling the White House a “hostile workplace” for women. She said the quote was taken out of context.
Even though some of his brashest, testosterone-pumped aides such as Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley, his two former chiefs of staffs schooled in in-your-face Chicago-style politics, left the White House, and David Axelrod, his senior adviser, moved to run the campaign and hasn’t returned in a formal role, the president has faced a nagging perception of the White House as an exclusive boys club.
At one point in late 2009, women in the White House felt so marginalized that Mr. Obama held a dinner to let the senior female aides voice their complaints directly to him.
Undeniably one of Mr. Obama’s closest aides, Ms. Jarrett shrugs off such suggestions and admits she has a think skin, having previously served as deputy chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, whom she admitted was more than a bit “intimidating.”
Still, she says, Chicago politics are nothing compared to what goes on in the nation’s capital.
“This is a tough town,” she said. “I thought I grew up on Chicago politics, and everyone’s heard so much about Chicago. But let me tell you, Chicago is child’s play next to D.C. It really is.”