CHICAGO — On a dark afternoon last week, the road to Jerusalem and Beijing momentarily veered through the office of a real estate company here.
Valerie Jarrett, the company’s chief executive, had signed her resignation letter an hour earlier, and now she was taking phone calls from potential top diplomatic appointees.
“You don’t need to thank me,” she said soothingly to a booming voice on her cell phone. “I just wanted you to have a chance to make your case.”
If someone were to rank the long list of people who helped Barack and Michelle Obama get where they are today, Jarrett would be close to the top. Nearly two decades ago, Jarrett swept the young lawyers under her wing, introduced them to a wealthier and better-connected Chicago than their own, and eventually secured contacts and money essential to Obama’s long-shot Senate victory.
In the crush of his presidential campaign, Jarrett could have fallen by the wayside, as old mentors often do. But the opposite happened: Using her intimacy with the Obamas, two BlackBerrys and a cell phone, Jarrett, a real estate executive and civic leader with no national campaign experience, became an internal mediator and external diplomat who secured the trust of black leaders, forged peace with Clintonites and helped talk Obama through major decisions.
She “automatically understands your values and your vision,” Michelle Obama said in a telephone interview on Friday, and is “somebody never afraid to tell you the truth.” She added: “She knows the buttons, the soft spots, the history, the context.”
In January, Jarrett will go to the White House as a senior adviser to Barack Obama, where she will be “one of the four or five people in the room with him when decisions get made,” as Anita Dunn, a former campaign aide, put it. Jarrett, who is a co-chairwoman of Obama’s transition effort, will also serve as the White House point person for local and state officials across the nation, trying to make good on Obama’s pledge to build a channel between his White House and ordinary Americans.
Less formally, she intends to help Obama preserve his essential self as he becomes president, even as she becomes the type of person who chats with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, mingles with Warren Buffett and is now sometimes greeted by strangers.
Washingtonians who assess the new White House crew sometimes cast Jarrett in parochial terms: She is the hometown buddy, they say, or the one who will hear out the concerns of black leaders. They note that presidential friends do not always fare well in the capital, as confidants from Arkansas and Texas have stumbled in the corridors of the West Wing.
Asked what was her biggest worry about the job, which is a major leap from anything she has undertaken before, Jarrett said she sometimes feared she did not know enough. “I will try to do my homework,” she said.
Jarrett, 52, has often been underestimated, perhaps because she is often the only black woman at the boardroom tables where she sits, or perhaps because she can seem girlish, with a pixie haircut, singsong voice and suits that earned her a recent profile in Vogue.
A protégé of Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, Jarrett served as his planning commissioner, ran a real estate company, the Habitat Co. — whose management of public housing projects has come under scrutiny with Jarrett’s rise — and sits on the boards of many organizations. She is an expert in urban affairs — in particular, housing and transportation — in an administration expected to lavish more money and attention on cities than its predecessors.
And she has something no other adviser in the Obama White House ever will: ties to the president-elect and future first lady that go deeper than a political alliance. Jarrett is only a few years older than the Obamas, but her relationship with them can seem almost maternal. “I can count on someone like Valerie to take my hand and say, ‘You need to think about these three things,’” Michelle Obama said. “Like a mom, a big sister, I trust her implicitly.”
A dose of reality
To the outside world, Jarrett became an all-purpose ambassador in the Obama campaign.
Before the Iowa caucuses, Jarrett tried to convince black leaders that Obama could prevail; afterward, she had to deal with their jitters. At one nerve-racking meeting last summer, Jarrett met in New York with black leaders, including the hip-hop moguls Sean Combs and Russell Simmons; Simmons grew so anxious that he had to leave the room, Jarrett said. They were worried that Obama was failing to fight back against attempts to stereotype him in racial terms.
“She could have told the room, ‘You’re right, I will talk to Sen. Obama,’” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. Instead, Jarrett was blunt. “There are those who are going to fight the race gap, but that’s not our role,” she said, telling the leaders to channel their energy into concrete tasks like voter registration.
“Miss Reality herself,” Sharpton now calls Jarrett. “There are unrealistic expectations of African-Americans about Barack Obama,” he said. “The one person who I think could come to the White House and say to African-Americans, ‘Now get real,’ is Valerie Jarrett.”
Jarrett also led the Obama campaign’s diplomatic missions to disappointed supporters of Clinton.
Like any skillful envoy, Jarrett alternated between speaking for the candidate, giving her audience assurances about how he would treat Clinton, and refusing to speak for him, demurring from making specific promises because she was not the candidate and could make no guarantees.
“What Valerie developed is the art of telling people to go to hell and making them look forward to the trip,” said Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan.