On message and with a streak of steel, Barack Obama’s senior advisor Valerie Jarrett made it clear that the president is fighting back challenges to his agenda. It “takes a certain temperament, perseverance and stubbornness” to make changes in Washington, Jarrett said.
She addressed poll numbers, town hall disruptions and what it will take to get health-care reform passed as she joined other administration officials speaking to journalists last week at the National Association of Black Journalists conference in Tampa, Fla.
As the August recess begins and congressional representatives return home to face questions about health care and the economy, Barack Obama is trying to make sure his message doesn’t get lost. If you didn’t know it before, a recent profile in the New York Times magazine made it clear that Jarrett is someone whose opinion the president has trusted since their friendship in Chicago.
Jarrett sat down with the Trotter Group of columnists after briefly addressing convention attendees. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson spoke at an earlier NABJ panel; U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke had a later spot to talk about the 2010 census.
On Friday, Jarrett cautiously praised the administration’s progress in the first six months “given that we were in a global meltdown” and said, “The president has managed to pull us back from the abyss.” She didn’t dwell on the past, but did glance back: “There were not sufficient regulations in place over the last eight years.”
While Obama’s poll numbers have come down to earth of late, Jarrett said when asked, “We were never big believers in polls.”
She believes the president makes his case when he gets out of the Beltway to visit the Cleveland Clinic for lessons on how health care can work or listens to the unemployed in cities like Elkhart, Ind., where he announced stimulus money for area company Navistar International to advance clean vehicle technology.
“Washington becomes a bit of a” (insert knowing pause) “it becomes detached.”
She put some of the blame for the images of “destructive” town hall protests on us – media that gravitate to controversy – and some on opponents trying to scuttle the health care reform she said the country needs to reduce costs and provide affordable coverage.
“I think this tone of trying to scare people is not at all helpful to serving the American people well,” she said. “That’s not the general spirit of the American people.” Saying the government is going to ration medicine to seniors, to counsel them to end their lives, saying legislation will lead to socialized medicine, that’s “not what’s in the bill, if you read it,” she said. In his weekly radio and Internet address, President Obama also struck back at critics who have spread what he calls “outlandish rumors” about the bill.
Eventually, Jarrett said, “people who motivate out of fear lose.”
You get the feeling that the bipartisan promises of the campaign are starting to look like wishful thinking, considering Republican pushback on everything from the nomination of now Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to a “cash for clunkers” program that many feel worked well.
I asked Jarrett if – six months in the White House with the battle scars to prove it — the president is considering abandoning that approach, especially in the effort to pass health care legislation.
“The president’s spirit of listening to all voices, being inclusive, making sure that he’s open to new ideas and different perspectives is a part of who is,” she said, “and that’s not going to change based on the outcome of a single vote or several votes. And he will always reach out his hand and he will always listen and he will always entertain different perspectives.” That involves listening “even more closely to those with whom you disagree.”
“Simply because someone doesn’t actually vote for a bill doesn’t mean they didn’t have input,” she said. It “doesn’t mean that their perspectives aren’t reflected in the bill.”
If they ultimately decide not to vote for the bill, “that doesn’t really reflect on the president’s approach,” Jarrett said. “He can’t control other people’s behavior; he can control his approach.”
“It will not be easy,” she said, in the understatement of the day.