That all-powerful, faith-free White House voice?

So, The New York Times ran one of those lengthy news features the other day that set out to penetrate the walls of Barack Obama’s White House and show readers what is really happening on the inside, in the halls of power that are the center of all that is important in the universe.

In other words, “The Other Power in the West Wing” is a story that’s about politics, politics and more politics.

But there’s a problem.

You see, everywhere you turn in this story — a massive take-out about Valerie Jarrett, a key Chicago insider and Obama friend who has moved inside the Beltway — religious issues keep showing up. This starts at the very beginning, with the mysterious political story that continues to divide Democrats in this city. This is long but essential:

WASHINGTON – President Obama was in a bind, and his chief of staff could not figure out how he had ended up there.

Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church were up in arms last fall over a proposal to require employers to provide health insurance that covered birth control. But caving in to the church’s demands for a broad exemption in the name of religious liberty would pit the president against a crucial constituency, women’s groups, who saw the coverage as basic preventive care.

Worried about the political and legal implications, the chief of staff, William M. Daley, reached out to the proposal’s author, Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary. How, he wondered, had the White House been put in this situation with so little presidential input? “You are way out there on a limb on this,” he recalls telling her.

“It was then made clear to me that, no, there were senior White House officials who had been involved and supported this,” said Mr. Daley, who left his post early this year.

What he did not realize was that while he was trying to put out what he considered a fire, the person fanning the flames was sitting just one flight up from him: Valerie Jarrett, the Obamas’ first friend, the proposal’s chief patron and a tenacious White House operator who would ultimately outmaneuver not only Mr. Daley but also the vice president in her effort to include the broadest possible contraception coverage in the administration’s health care overhaul.

So, as everyone knows, there were centrist Democrats who were pleading for change on this issue, for some kind of real compromise with Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, Muslims (as opposed to the Times and its Catholics-only approach) affected by this controversial mandate. However, Jarrett stood in the way. She was too close, too inside, to out maneuver.

So who is Jarrett?

Later in the story, readers are told:

Ms. Jarrett often serves as a counterweight to the more centrist Clinton veterans in the administration, reminding them and her innately cautious boss that he came to Washington to do big things. Some of his boldest moves, on women’s issues, gay rights and immigration, have been in areas she cares about most. If Karl Rove was known as George W. Bush’s political brain, Ms. Jarrett is Mr. Obama’s spine. …

But she has also steered him toward controversy, as in the contraception debate. And some of Mr. Obama’s most senior advisers worry — perhaps not entirely without jealousy — that her direct access to the president has at times led to half-baked decision making and unclear lines of authority. …

She is the only staff member who regularly follows the president home from the West Wing to the residence, a practice that has earned her the nickname “the Night Stalker.” By day, Mr. Obama is “Mr. President” to her, but in social settings, he is just “Barack.” When the Obamas take an out-of-town break, she often goes along.

What readers are hearing, of course, is the sound of jealousy.

This is the sound of jealousy inside the White House itself, the voices of Democrats who resent this powerful woman’s close ties to the Obamas. But this raises the same question: If Jarrett is who she is because of what she believes, then what does she believe? This is especially crucial since, while the story mentions some economic issues, it is clear that the heart of her power is linked to cultural, moral and religious issues.

Later in the feature, there is this highly symbolic showdown with a major figure on the religious left:

Ms. Jarrett was … “livid,” one former White House official said, with members of the Congressional Black Caucus who accused the president of paying insufficient attention to the particular economic woes of blacks. When the writer and academic Cornel West joined in, calling Mr. Obama the “black mascot of Wall Street,” Ms. Jarrett’s response was “ruthless,” Dr. West said. He recalled a phone call in which she dismissed his criticism as sour grapes for not receiving a ticket to the inauguration, and said he later heard from friends that she was putting out the word that “one, I was crazy, and two, I was un-American.”

“It was a matter of letting me know that I was, in her view, way out of line and that I needed to get in line,” he said in an interview. “I conveyed to her: ‘I’m not that kind of Negro. I’m a Jesus-loving black man who tells the truth, in the White House, in the crack house or in any other house.’ She got real quiet. It was clear that she was not used to being spoken to that way.”

I could go on and on. The bottom line, however, is clear: Everywhere readers turn in this story, they run into moral, cultural and religious issues.

This is true everywhere EXCEPT in the reporting about Jarrett herself.

So I will ask: Would it help to know something about the religious views of this all-powerful insider, since she seems so passionate about so many issues that have a religious component?

Just asking. Maybe there is nothing there at all. If true, that would — itself — be crucial information.

Just saying.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • DearbornGuy

    Very interesting question, tmatt… and very appropriate to ask.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    I wonder if Jarrett et al is behind the State Dept and Hillary pushing gay rights and contraceptives/abortions on the third world?
    link
    This is common knowledge, but wikileaks proved it was happening to us in the Philippines.
    The Pope has warned our bishops (in the Philippines) to expect the press to go full court press to destroy the church with “scandals” if they don’t go along with it.

    And in Africa, the push for gay rights has caused a lot of anger. That is another uncovered “religious” story in the press.

  • dalea

    Interestingly, her wikipedia page makes no mention of religion:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valerie_Jarr

    Like Obama, she comes from an American family that lived abroad for many years. She does have a background in finance, which may account for her actions on the insurance issue. In finance, employee health care is always counted as part of wages not an employer expenditure. Health care expense is considred part of labor burden in accounting and financial thinking. And by law, employers have virtually no control over how employees spend their earnings. A finance person would look at the position of the RC bishops as akin to an Orthodox Jew not wanting to pay employees because they might spend money on ham. This may be part of the situation.

  • sari

    **A finance person would look at the position of the RC bishops as akin to an Orthodox Jew not wanting to pay employees because they might spend money on ham. This may be part of the situation.**

    Interesting assessment, though it is a poor comparison. Only Jews are subject to Jewish Law; the Orthodox understand that and have no problem with non-Jews eating treif meat. Sorry, but the ham thing comes up a lot (and has nothing to do with women’s health).

    • Edtc

      A religious person is more apt to say this this is more like a kosher deli being forced to sell ham.

  • dalea

    Interesting Sari. I have known people who worked for Orthodox Jews who were not allowed to bring ham sandwiches into the work place break room. Nore to put anything treif in the office refrigerator.
    I’ll try again. How about ‘… akin to Southern Baptists not wanting to pay employees because they might spend the money on dancing.’

    One under covered aspect of this issue is to what extent do laws restricting employers’ control over how wages are spent touch on the discussion. Reading over the coverage, I do not recall seeing any coverage of this point. When I first saw the discussion, my reaction was that employer funded health insurance is part of wages, and has been so for 70 years, so there is no religious freedom concern here. The employer does not buy the insurance, the employee buys it with wages not subject to taxation but wages that must be spent only on government regulated health insurance. All the employer does is handle the transaction book work. Am I missing something?

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    A quick look about shows other people asking the same question, and apparently finding nothing; I have to suspect that there’s nothing to find. Unfortunately for staying on-topic here the more interesting question here may be how Obama’s apparently closest adviser is someone in the same peculiar position as himself: biracial and foreign-raised.

  • sari

    dalea,
    The question is not about what employees can do or not do on the premises; it’s what employees can do when they’re off. Many non-religious companies restrict employee’s work attire, but very few dictate how employees dress outside of work. A fridge/eating area shared by Orthodox owners and non-Orthodox employees is not equivalent to dictating how the employee spends his or her health care dollars. A more apt comparison would be to a Jehovah’s Witness who stipulates that employer-financed health care exclude blood products from coverage. S/he imposes his or her beliefs on the employee who does not share them and potentially restricts access to life-saving medical services.

    There is a lot of confusion as to the Halakhah (body of Jewish Law), even among Jews. Other than the seven Noahide Laws, the mitzvot (lit: commandments; good deeds is colloquial Yiddish and should not be confused with the word’s use in Torah/Halakhah) are incumbent upon Jews alone. The Orthodox owner wants to limit the chance that his or her food will be rendered treif (and, maybe, that he avoid being the avenue whereby other Jews sin), not to impose religious restrictions on non-Jews.

    A simple introduction to the Noahide Laws can be seen here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noahide_laws

    I agree that the coverage has focused too much on religious employers’ desire to limit coverage and not enough on the degree to which employees can restrict how employees spend wages. That said, employers have always had the option to expand or limit coverage. For a long time, many chose to forgo the more expensive maternity rider, which left pregnant female employees to foot the entire bill. Others severely limited coverage of children (e.g., excluded the recommended series of vaccinations, preventative services) and chose not to cover mental illnesses or developmental delays. Hereditary disorders like Downs and mental retardation, for instance, fall under mental health rather than the more proper neurology, which led to parents bankrupting themselves to provide services for their children.

    Which leads to (most) journalists’ failure to elucidate the difference between actual insurance, based on the calculation of risk that a certain event will happen, and health insurance, which has become employer-sponsored *health care*. Likewise, the societal benefits (or not) universal health care have been lost in the noise.

    None of which has anything to do with Jarrett.

  • deiseach

    You’re right – this is a very gossipy, insider look at the woman and her influence, and either the readers are supposed to already know the salient facts (and if you don’t, then you’re obviously not in the loop so you don’t count) or they don’t matter.

    I was annoyed by the vagueness of the references – she worked in the Mayor of Chicago’s office (doing what?), she offered a job to Michelle Obama (how was she in a position to do that?), she gave President Obama his start through her connections as a member of a politically and socially influential family, and she’s the power behind the throne in the White House.

    I don’t like that I had to go to Wikipedia to find out the simple but important things this article missed: “Jarrett got her start in Chicago politics in 1987 working for Mayor Harold Washington[9] as Deputy Corporation Counsel for Finance and Development.[10]

    Jarrett continued to work in the mayor’s office in the 1990s. She was Deputy Chief of Staff for Mayor Richard Daley, during which time (1991) she hired Michelle Robinson, then engaged to Barack Obama, away from a private law firm. Jarrett served as Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development from 1992 through 1995, and was Chair of the Chicago Transit Board from 1995 to 2005.” Would it have killed the article to just add a line of explanation to say that she was Deputy Chief of Staff, and that her formal title now is as White House Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liaison?

    Any explanation as to why, if she’s more or less the de facto Chief of Staff, she isn’t (wasn’t?) offered that job, or why the President might prefer that she continue to act as a liaison to business?

    As it is, we get an impression of unearned and secret influence based on personal access and ties of obligation, mixed in with building a power base through ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ by getting people (and mainly women) into jobs and positions of influence – unless that was the impression the story intended to create?

  • Brian Westley

    Why do you say her religious views are relevant? This just reads like innuendo simply because she doesn’t wear her religion on her sleeve.


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