Valerie Jarrett, the former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, is giving the former vice president high marks for the diversity of his Cabinet amidst mounting pressure from civil rights groups to put more Black people in top positions.
So far, President-elect Joe Biden has rolled out a set of historic appointments, several of them women and people of color. But after he nominated White people to some of the most influential spots on his Cabinet — including the Treasury and State departments — seven civil rights groups, including the NAACP, pressed him for a meeting to encourage promotion of more Black leaders to the top posts in his administration. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are also pushing Biden to place some Latinx leaders in the remaining Cabinet slots.
Jarrett, who was born in Iran and whose parents are of African-American and European descent, said in a conversation with The 19th’s Errin Haines that she is pleased with the efforts Biden has made to select diverse candidates so far.
“Both his White House and his Cabinet [are] reflecting the rich diversity of our country, breaking all kinds of historical barriers for women, for people of color,” Jarrett told Haines.
Still, the president-elect has significant pressures ahead of him to really deliver on some of his campaign promises early on, she said, especially for the Black and Latinx community that supported the former vice president in his election bid (though Trump did make inroads with Black men and Latinx voters in some pockets of the country).
“He is going to have to reach out in terms of his words, but also in his deeds,” Jarrett said.
And he’ll be doing that while juggling an increasingly polarized country.
Biden earned about 51 percent of the popular vote, according to preliminary results from Decision Desk HQ, falling short of the wide margins some polls suggested were likely on Election Day. For Jarrett, who served as one of Obama’s closest confidants, it’s a sign of the deep divisions in the country.
Biden “has a huge responsibility to reach out to [President Donald] Trump supporters, and to try to help heal our country, leading by example,” Jarrett said.
It creates a challenge for Biden, who has campaigned saying he will be a president for all Americans, not just Democrats. For the record number of women elected to Congress this year, it’s an opportunity, Jarrett said.
“We’re good at not letting perfect be the enemy of good and reaching across the aisle trying to build consensus and I think that’s what I hear as I travel around the country: People are so tired, Errin, of this polarization in politics,” Jarrett told Haines.
The bright spots for Jarrett have been the picks Biden has made so far in his administration.
The president-elect has nominated Janet Yellen to be the first female Treasury Secretary, Cecilia Rouse to be the first Black person to chair the Council of Economic Advisers, Neera Tanden to be the first woman of color and first South Asian American to serve as director of the Office of Budget and Management, Avril Haines to be the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence and Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be the second Black woman to serve as U.N. ambassador, plus an all-women communications team.
The election of Kamala Harris as the nation’s first female vice president, in particular, will have a transformative effect on people of all ages, said Jarrett, who also chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls.
“My 92-year-old mom thought she’d never lived to see a Black person be president and now she not only got to see that, but she gets to see Kamala Harris,” she said. “We all stand a little taller when we see representation that looks like us, but I also think it’s important for every American to get used to this new vision of what a powerful, ambitious leader looks like.”
The former Obama senior advisor and former assistant to the president for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs said the team Biden’s chosen, which she knows well, will also have an advantage over the team that started with Obama.
Biden picked people who he has worked with before, and most importantly, who have worked with each other.
“This is no time for on-the-job training,” Jarrett said.
First on the agenda, in her mind, should be passing a COVID-19 stimulus package to address the pressures that people of color and women have felt this year in terms of job loss and food and housing insecurity.
And, regardless of the results of a Georgia runoff election that will decide what party holds the Senate, Jarrett said Biden should move quickly via executive action by rejoining the World Health Organization, rejoining the Paris Agreement and reinstating protections for Dreamers — all actions he has indicated he plans to take in his early days in office.
As for her, Jarrett said she plans to continue her current work with not-for-profits and on behalf of women. Earlier this year, Jarrett was part of a group called “We Have Her Back” that sent a letter to top networks and newspapers calling on them to avoid the gendered attacks on Biden’s vice president that have befallen women in top office.
Jarrett said the push was a way to tell women in leadership positions that they are not alone in the fight against the double standard that is often imposed on them.
“We are going to call it out each and every time we see it and that’s how we begin to change the culture,” she said.
The other way is representation: “I am so delighted that there are more women in Congress than ever before, regardless of party. When they’re making decisions about our uteruses, I want people with uteruses at the table.”
But Jarrett, 64, doesn’t see herself at the table in a Biden administration. Though she’s told the president-elect that she will help in whatever way she can, her top priority now will be to shift focus to being a grandmother for her first grandson, who was born last year.
“People who go into public service should really be prepared to give it their all and I’ve done that for half of my career,” Jarrett said. “This next chapter of my life I will be on the outside cheering those on the inside.”