Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Here’s the Dirt on Five Big Chicago Names in Jonathan Alter’s New Obama Book

The Center Holds reveals tensions in Obama’s White House between Axelrod, Emanuel, and others from Chicago.

Valerie Jarrett Barack Obama Rahm Emanuel

Photo: The White House

Valerie Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, Barack Obama, David Axelrod, and Rahm Emanuel

Jonathan Alter is back on the Obama beat with a new book,  The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, “detailing the backstory of the big events of 2011 and 2012.”  Alter, who grew up here, makes no small claims for the book’s importance because its focus, he writes, is on the “most consequential” election of the nine he has covered since graduating from college in 1979.  The contest between Obama and Mitt Romney, Alter explains, was a “titanic ideological struggle over the way Americans see themselves and their obligations to one another. The social contract established during the New Deal era was on the line.” Romney, Alter adds, wanted “low taxes and a shrunken government as the handmaiden of business.”    

Obviously, Alter’s heart is with Obama and his team of strategists, who won the President a second term despite a miserable economy and evaporating enthusiasm for the hometown boy. “I make no apologies for suggesting that the U.S. dodged a bullet in 2012 by rejecting this [Romney and Paul Ryan’s] extreme view…”

The latest from Alter, 55, a 28-year veteran of Newsweek, now working as a columnist for Bloomberg View, is a sequel to The Promise, an analysis of Obama’s first year in the White House.

Alter had access to Obama for that book; this time he did not, but he claims to have interviewed more than 200 people, followed by the caveat, ubiquitous in inside-the-beltway books, “many on background.” He thanks a long list of people by name who shared observations, insights, anecdotes, plenty of them Chicagoans—Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley, John Rogers, Marty Nesbitt, Austan Goolsbee, among them. 

Here’s a few highlights on the Chicago players:

Valerie Jarrett: Alter writes that Jarrett, a big sister figure to the Obamas, is “so close to the family [met Barack and Michelle in 1991 before they were married when she interviewed Michelle for a job in City Hall] that she went on vacation with them.”  Others, envious of her access, called her the “Keeper of the Essence.”  Alter describes her as “the defender, protector, and avenger for the first family.”  She was also called the “Night Stalker” because she “could and often did wander up to the family quarters after hours.”  She regularly accompanied Obama on travels abroad and, although foreign policy was not a particular interest or responsibility of hers, “she would frequently take one of the half-dozen seats alongside the president in bilateral meetings, which meant one less seat for a policy expert.” 

Staffers feared her, but didn’t  like or trust her. At meetings she said little or nothing, instead lingering afterwards to express her views directly to the President, creating anxiety for her underlings and insulting them by saying, “I don’t talk just to hear myself talking.” Staffers engaged in “a nervous pastime” of “interpreting sighs, glances, cleared throats, even terms of endearment.” People who had not performed to her standards were terrified of receiving emails from her, even emails that contained the line, “I forgive you, sweetie,” which, Alter explains, is “supposed to mean you’re back in,” but doesn’t really. He quotes one former staffer as warning, “If she calls you `sweetie,’ run!”

Jimmy Carter was infamous for deciding such nitpicky details as who could play on the White House tennis courts; for Obama, Jarrett made those decisions, controlling, “who got invited to everything from state dinners to the small party for family and inner staff at the White House swimming pool on the 4th of July” and “what gift to give to a foreign leader or who should get the Presidential Medal of Freedom…”

Portrayed as a woman who was “often uncomfortable with people she didn’t know,” Alter writes that Jarrett “put out the word early on [that] ‘We’re not making new friends.’” (There were a couple of exceptions, such as Attorney General Eric Holder and his wife.)

One of Jarrett’s White House responsibilities—among her official titles is senior counselor to the President—was to be the administration’s liaison with business leaders, but some of these men (Alter specifies they were all men) were unimpressed. Alter quotes one unidentified CEO as saying, “When we go to the White House we talk to people we wouldn’t hire.”  

David Axelrod: Michelle and Valerie Jarrett  “weren’t thrilled with the way [Axelrod] came across on TV.”  The messaging guru had planned to stay in Washington, where he had an office close by the President’s, until the spring of 2011 and then return to Chicago to help the reelection team; his departure date was moved up to February 2011. Alter writes that Axelrod clashed with another campaign stalwart, Stephanie Cutter, and that, for a time, they “barely spoke”  because Axelrod  believed the super-aggressive and ambitious Cutter “had accepted an invitation to appear on…. network [TV] that was meant for him.” Alter also writes that while Axelrod “didn’t like to admit he was playing class politics, he did so early and often,” going after what should have been Romney’s strong suit, his business record, and making him look like an oligarch lacking heart, soul, and any trace of concern for society’s less privileged.   

Axelrod may have lacked the blow-dried looks for TV, but he had no shortage of smarts and shrewdly saw the 2012 contest as a “trust” election, while his opponents wrongly saw it as a “change” election. Axelrod understood that “Does this guy empathize with me?” was the key question, and that because the answer, Axelrod knew, was no, Obama had a clear path to victory.

Rahm Emanuel: The former operative and congressman wanted out as Obama’s White House chief of staff in part because he was “tired of being undermined by Valerie Jarrett, and he was anxious to run for mayor of Chicago.” (Alter reprises the story of Rahm trying to persuade then Gov. Blagojevich to appoint Jarrett to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Obama, as a way to keep her out of the White House.) As mayor, Emanuel kept his hand firmly in the campaign and Alter paints a 24-hours-before-election-day scene of Rahm confronting Obama’s pollster at the campaign’s Chicago headquarters: “`You better fucking be right,’ the mayor told the pollster, only half-joking.  `See these guys?’ he said, pointing to his [mayoral] security detail. `If you’re not fucking right  they will hunt you down and bring you back to me and I’ll fucking take care of you myself.’”

Bill Daley: Obama hired him as his chief of staff on the “strong recommendation” of Emanuel and Axelrod who “thought Daley would help the president get reelected.” Daley was close to Emanuel and Axelrod, but not to Obama, although Daley became  in 2006 “the first major Democrat to endorse Obama over Hillary Clinton.” Soon thereafter, Axelrod likely insulted Daley by requesting that he keep his distance from the candidate so that it wouldn’t look to voters as if Obama was part of the Chicago machine. By mid-2007, when Obama trailed Hillary by 30 points, Daley irritated Obama’s team by “figur [ing] Obama’s campaign was a lost cause and [saying] so a little too loudly. He was offered nothing when Obama became president and was rarely consulted in the first two years.”   

Alter also reports that the much-told story of Obama accompanying Michelle, to whom he was not yet married, to an interview at City Hall with Valerie Jarrett, then Mayor Rich Daley’s deputy chief of staff, “for the purpose of deciding whether Daley’s City Hall was good enough for his junior lawyer girlfriend,” did not “amuse” then-Mayor Rich Daley. According to Alter, Rich Daley was no fan of Jarrett, finding her “indecisive as city planning commissioner” and refusing to promote her to chief of staff.

Bill Daley quickly found himself marginalized: “He had expected to be heavily involved in the 2012 campaign but was effectively excluded from it, as he had been in 2008.” His portfolio became “policy and legislation,” but because he had been out of Washington for more than a decade, Daley didn’t know the players “or the subtleties of the protocol anymore.” Besides, writes Alter, “Obama had hired Daley to help him get reelected; now he realized he didn’t need the skills of the old Chicago machine when he was building a new one of his own.” 

Alter speculates that Jarrett probably had a hand in showing Daley the door. Alter describes Jarrett as “in an agitated state” when Obama hired Daley in January 2011, fearing that it “would affect her role as liaison to the business world.” As usual, Alter adds, “she left no fingerprints.” 

Still Obama invited Daley into the situation room to monitor the killing of Osama bin Laden. Alter quotes Daley as saying that, “the evidence of bin Laden’s presence in the compound was so weak that it wouldn’t have been enough to convince even a Cook County judge to issue a search warrant.”  

Luis Gutierrez: Quoting an unnamed official, Alter describes the Chicago congressman as “weirdly obsessed with the president,” calling him often in 2009, “claiming an old Chicago friendship, and eventually Obama stopped taking his calls.” Gutierrez felt that Obama had never paid Latinos back for their support in 2008. (Obama bested John McCain by 34 points.) The Congressman was furious that “about 1.5 million illegal aliens were deported under Obama, far more than under Bush,” that Obama had “reneged on his promise to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority,” and failed, late in 2010, to push the Dream Act through Congress.  After a meeting in 2011 in the White House with Bill Daley and other Latino leaders, Gutierrez went “ballistic…. They’ve been silent for two years and now they’re bragging about deporting a million people, many of them kids?  I can’t shut up about this.”  The result, Alter writes, was Gutierrez going “on a national speaking tour blasting the president.” 

I found The Center Holds extremely entertaining; so much so that I stuck with it for most of the daylight hours of my weekend. It’s on sale tomorrow. 

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