No matter who wins the Democratic Party’s nomination for president next year, longtime Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett wants them to remember something important: You need to listen to everyone in the Party, not just your boosters.
“The people who ultimately rise to the top in the Democratic Party are going to be people who build a big tent, an inclusive tent, recognize that we’re not monolithic, that we have room for lots of different opinions,” Jarrett said on the latest episode of Recode Decode. “I think we celebrate diverse ideas with common values and I think you could have both.”
She told Recode’s Kara Swisher that it’s “premature” for her to endorse any one of the nominees, but praised Senator Elizabeth Warren for “having done some homework and come up with a straw man.” And like her mentee Barack Obama, Jarrett said she has met with several of the Democrats who are hoping to unseat President Trump.
“I’ve offered them my best advice,” she said. “I’ve encouraged them to keep the long view, which is not beating each other up so badly that they go into the general election wounded, because I think we need to take back the White House.”
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Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Valerie.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as someone who would never be picked to run the White House, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the Red Chair is Valerie Jarrett, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama while he was in the White House. These days, she’s a senior adviser to the Obama Foundation, is on the board of several tech companies including Lyft, and has just released a new book called Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward.
Valerie, welcome to Recode Decode.
Valerie Jarrett: Thank you. I am delighted to be here.
We’ve talked so many times.
We have spoken a fair amount.
Yes, a fair amount. So, I want to get an idea of the book itself and everything else, but just give people the two-second version of what you did at the White House. I know people don’t not remember you, but …
I oversaw three offices. The Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, that was managing our relationships with state and local elected officials, all elected officials who were not in Congress, mayors, governors, etc. I oversaw the Office of Public Engagement. That was a gateway through which ordinary Americans and a whole range of constituency groups could interface with the White House to help us make more informed decisions. And I chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls.
And then senior adviser to the president. He always had three. I was the only one that lasted all eight years in that position, and that’s really the team that is supposed to review every decision before it gets to the president, and then give him the benefit of our best advice.
Right, and so you were very close to the Obamas, both the Obamas.
I’ve known them now, both of them, for 28 years.
Right, which you talk about in this book.
Consider them family.
So, talk a little bit about Finding My Voice. Why did you call it this?
Because I had to find my voice, and when I was a young adult, I didn’t listen to the most important voice, and that’s the quiet one inside of me. I didn’t trust it, and so I wanted to talk about what I’ve heard. I was not unique. I’ve heard from so many young people who, when they begin their careers, they think that they need to have a direction and a mission, and I kind of made up one because I didn’t have a natural passion.
I started my career practicing law in the corporate sector, and I was kind of craving a straight line rather than having the confidence to appreciate the adventure of a zigzag, of a swirl, and when I finally made up my mind that I was so miserable I had to do something about my life — both my personal and my professional life, I talk about my divorce in the book, for example — it changed my life for the better.
So, I want people to find their voices. And then once you find it, you have to figure out, well, what do you want to do with it? What do you feel passionately about? I found advocacy at the local level in government was my passion. I enjoyed public service. I enjoyed seeing the faces of the people whose lives we were trying to help and getting feedback from them about what to do. So, I used my voice to advocate, first for other people, and then I learned how to advocate for myself, which is also something that’s not easy.
At least, it wasn’t easy for me to do. I think the point of … Part of the reason why I wanted to tell the story is that sometimes, people look at me and they see not the finished product, because I’m still a work in progress, but a person who’s 60-something and has had an incredible career.
Right, now that you’re adviser to the president, White House influencer.
What I want them to understand is I started out painfully shy. I started out in a miserable marriage. I was a single mom. I mean, there’s more to me than just what they see at the end, and the journey is important. I’m hoping that it will be useful in people’s lives, that they’ll see something of themselves and that it’ll help motivate them to feel a greater sense of ownership about what to do with their voice.
Right. Okay. So, let’s start your history, which I wasn’t aware that you lived in Iran. I don’t know why I didn’t know that, but I …
Born there, yeah. Talk about that, because that was a really interesting part. You were born outside of this country, obviously an American citizen, but talk about that, that difference, because I think it did shape you in a lot of ways.
It did in pretty basic and fundamental ways. So, my parents ended up in Iran because my father, he was a physician and when he was coming out of the Army, he wanted to teach in an academic medical center, and he couldn’t find a job equivalent to what his white counterparts coming out of the army could find here in the United States.
So, my parents were adventuresome spirits, and they decided, well, let’s explore other options outside of the United States, and they heard about a position helping to start up this hospital in Shiraz, Iran, the Namazi Hospital, and they took this adventuresome leap of faith, and they decided, why not? They didn’t know anything about the country or the culture or the government.
The year was?
They just decided to go off.
Yeah. This was in the ’60s, in the late ’50s?
Well, it would be … They left in ’55.
Yeah, late ’50s. Right.
And I was born in ’56, so I was the second baby born in that hospital. They practiced on some other poor kid first.
What did your mom do?
My mom taught … She has a master’s in education, and so she taught early child development in the nursing school.
Mm-hmm. There in Iran?
There as well.
So, how long were you in Iran?
We were there until I was 5, and then we moved to London, and then from London, my father was recruited to the University of Chicago Medical Center, a job he couldn’t have gotten six years earlier. So, what he used to always say to me is, “Sometimes the shortest distance to where you want to go is the longest way around.”
So, he gave me confidence, and what my parents did give me confidence about this swirl into government. But it shaped me in three basic ways. No. 1, we lived on a hospital compound with families from all over the world, physicians from all over the world, and I learned at a very early age that I could feel comfortable, and I could find something in common with children who didn’t even share a language with me, let alone a culture, and of all walks of life.
I think that shaped my world outlook. It also helped me appreciate something that people who haven’t lived outside of the United States often don’t appreciate, which is just how fortunate we are here. It’s everything from clean water and healthy food — my mother had to boil or peel everything that went through my mouth — to our civil liberties. And not that we’re perfect, but we’re a lot better than the rest of the world in that respect.
And then the final thing I learned is that the United States might already be the greatest country on earth, it’s not the only country on earth, and that we can learn a lot more outside of our shores.
Right, right, right. Yeah, yeah.
Those basic facts shaped me.
Well, it does give you … When you live abroad at all, when you live abroad in any way, you have that feeling.
It gives you a broadening perspective on how we fit into the greater whole, and I think that’s important.
Yeah. So, you came back. You grew up in Chicago.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago, where my mom was born and raised.
Mm-hmm. So, you developed a life here, and you went pretty … Talk about a straight line, you went achievement central. You were sort of the hamster on the achievement wheel. I always say that to my kids. I’m like, “Get off the wheel.”
Get off the wheel.
Get off the wheel. But there’s a lot of kids like that. They’re very achievement-oriented, and you did the big law school, big college, corporate lawyer. Why?
Because I could, and it was, in a way, the path of least resistance. It was a lot easier to just work hard and do what everybody else was doing. It’s kind of a herd mentality, and I was interested in public service, but the law firms came up — the University of Michigan — to interview, and they flew you back, and they wined and dined you, and they made you feel special. That’s what they do to get you in the door. It took me longer than it should’ve. It took me six years to find myself sitting in my office crying one day.
Were you doing some contract?
… saying, “Whose life is this?” Well, negotiating the force majeure clauses and loan agreements was just not what moved me. It does move some people, and I don’t regret it because what I learned there, the discipline and the substance, enabled me to then go move to the city and work in the law department at a much more senior position than if I had started at the city. So, it was a useful experience, but it was not fulfilling.
And by that point I was a single mom. I would leave Laura every day and I would say, “Am I doing something that will actually make her proud of me?” The answer was no, and I wasn’t even very good at it, and I’d sit there and stare at those time sheets, and I’d just wonder, “What did I do yesterday that’s worthy of billing somebody at this astronomical rate?”
Harold Washington, who was the mayor of Chicago, had just been reelected for a second term, and a good friend of mine had been in his administration, was heading back to his law firm, and he said, “You should try it,” and these are the words I’ll never forget. He said, “You’ll feel a part of something bigger and more important than yourself,” and that touched me.
I remember walking into City Hall that first day, and my boss met me at reception, and he took me to my … He went, with air quotes, “my office,” and it was a cubical facing an alley, compared to the magnificent view I’d had from a high rise in Chicago, and I thought, you know what? This is actually where I belong, and that’s where I found my voice.
So, had you done public work?
The only exposure, and this is a part of it as well, is that I probably at that point … Before Harold Washington was elected, I didn’t know my alderman. I probably didn’t even know how many wards were in the city. I knew who the mayor was.
So, not political. You weren’t political at all.
I was not political at all because I was on this kind of blinders straight line, and then when I was working at my law firm, my mentor there helped me get into a program called Leadership Greater Chicago, where they select young people who they considered to be tapped for leadership positions later in life, and they were from the civic community, the arts community, government, the suburbs. Suburbs, I’d never been to a suburb of Chicago, and it began to open my eyes that there are opportunities outside of this straight line that I had been adhering to, and it changed my life.
So, you got involved in city politics, obviously, [we’re] here in Washington. The Chicago politics is pretty much the politics of all politics.
It is, indeed.
What did you like about it, or not? Did you think about going further?
Yes, I did. Well, I started out as a lawyer. Mayor Daley, when he was elected a couple years in, promoted me to deputy chief of staff. I then ran the Department of Planning and Development for four years, which was extraordinary. And when I left government, I joined The Habitat Company, a real estate company. There was also the receiver for the Chicago Housing Authority, so I worked on all these massive redevelopments of the city.
And then also, when I left government, Mayor Daley asked me to chair the board of the Chicago Transit Authority, and I’d always been keenly interested on how public transit improves the fabric of the city and fits into the context of urban planning. So, that stretch of my life was just exhilarating, and I moved from being a lawyer — I have to say, I’ve never looked back — and into policy and substantive roles having to do primarily with urban planning.
With urban planning. Then you meet the Obamas.
When I was deputy chief of staff, I recruited Michelle Robinson to come and join my team in the mayor’s office. That was in 1991, before I became commissioner of planning and development, and she was hot on the idea, but she said to me, her fiancé wasn’t so hot on the idea when she discussed it with him.
Why is that?
I said, “Well, who’s your fiancé, and why do we care what he thinks?” She said, “Well, his name is Barack Obama, and he started his career as a community organizer, and he’s concerned about me going right into the fire. You at least went to the frying pan of the law department. This is strictly political, and would you have …”
Michelle Obama has a law degree, also.
Law degree, excellent, and it was practicing law at a law firm. So, part of what drew me to her is that the person who sent me her resume said, “Great young lawyer. Has no interest in being in a law firm. Wants to explore public service.”
Right, similar to you.
Similarly to what had motivated me, and so she said, “Would you have dinner with us to talk about it?” Which is a little unusual, when you’re recruiting somebody, to say, “Well …” But I said, “Sure,” and that was a really smart thing to do. The point I would make about it is that she cared about his opinion about what she would do with her future because of how they looked at themselves as a unit, and there isn’t a decision he made in his life where he didn’t want her at the table as well. So, I think it speaks well of their partnership.
Mm-hmm. So, talk a little bit … Fast-forward to how you got to decide you all wanted to do this incredible journey that you went on, which I think was surprising to everybody.
It was surprising, but I will … Well, it was surprising, and people often say to me, “Well, did you know when you met him that he’d be President of the United States one day?” and I say when I first met him at that dinner, what I thought was absolutely possible because I thought there was … He clearly wanted to do public service. He was motivated for all the right reasons, and I thought, you know what? Maybe just one day, you’ll be mayor of Chicago. That was the ceiling of how high I could see it going.
Why? Because that …
Well, because that was my life experience, and I’d seen Harold Washington elected to the mayor’s job, and it didn’t occur to me back then that he would even aspire to be president, but it was all very natural, and I would say after he gave the speech at the 2004 convention …
Right, a big speech.
A really big speech. Sitting in the audience, I thought, “People are connecting to you. You’re meeting them where they are, in their living rooms, and they can see a piece of themselves in your unusual journey,” and I thought he would be a unifying force. So, it was really at that moment where I thought, “We’re not done yet,” and he hadn’t even been elected to the Senate, but I thought the possibility was there.
One of the things that’s important is being this adviser. How did you move to an adviser status? How do you think it went? Because you were doing a lot of stuff around the city. You could’ve been mayor of Chicago.
I considered running for mayor, once upon a time. Well, first of all, when the president of the United States asks you to do something …
No, I get it. Before he was the president, before.
Oh. Well, because it grew, I think, iteratively out of our friendship and the fact that I worked on all of his campaigns, I chaired his finance committee when he ran for Senate, and so in that sense, friends are always your advisers, and I certainly was a mentor to Michelle Obama. She both worked at the city, but also, when she worked at the University of Chicago I was on the board there, and when she worked at the medical center, I chaired the board.
So, I think our lives were very firmly entwined, both professionally and also socially. We lived in the same neighborhood, a block apart, when they were first married, and then a mile apart after that. They were right down the street from my parents’ home now, and so it just was a natural relationship that withstood the test of time, and I think that’s real friendship, where after nearly 30 years you can say, “Yes, we grew together.”
Why didn’t you run for office? I’m always interested by people who are facilitators of other people’s success.
Yeah. So, the first time I thought about running was right before Mayor Daley’s third term, and it was unclear whether he would run. I wouldn’t have run against him. No. 1, I couldn’t have beat him, and No. 2, because he was my mentor and my friend. But I thought if he had not run, I would have fun, and then when he ran, that’s really when I delved deep into President Obama’s presidential campaign.
And then at this stage, I don’t have that fire in my belly. What I really enjoy doing is helping other people run for office, and I learned a great deal about the local government and two presidential campaigns and countless other campaigns where I’ve helped people who I believed in. So, I’m really interested in helping that next generation.
So, why did that interest you?
I delight in their success, I really do. I delight in someone like a Lauren Underwood, who I met …
Yep, I just met her.
… when she worked for the federal government in HHS, our Department of Health and Human Services, on the Affordable Care Act.
This is a congresswoman.
Now she’s a congresswoman. I was an early supporter of her campaign, and every time I see her on television my face lights up, and I think, “Well, I knew her when.” To be able to help somebody like that develop, and I think some of it is age, and I’m at this stage of my life where I don’t really feel like running for office, and you shouldn’t do it unless you absolutely have that fire in your belly, and it shouldn’t be about you. It should be about service. What I’ve learned over the course of my career is there are lots of infinite ways of serving, and you don’t actually have to be involved in politics to serve.
After eight years in Washington, I think the service part of it is more interesting to me than the political part of it. So when I meet, for example, with people who are considering or have already announced that they’re running for president, I talk about, “Well, what do you believe in? Why do you want to do this? What motivates you to do it?” and then be honest with the American people about it, and that that’s what they’re hungry for, is that kind of leadership. So, being that voice in the room is what …
What you like.
It’s what I like right now.
So, we could go through the whole time in office, but what are your highlights of that and the parts that weren’t so easy for you?
Well, every day was both an honor, an enormous challenge, hardest thing I’ve ever done, and immediately … It’s just immensely satisfying, and most of the highlights were from observing ordinary people do extraordinary things. We had, for example, within my division of public engagement, we had something called Champions of Change, where we scoured the country just looking for people who were making a difference on the ground in their communities, and then we celebrated them at the White House. It seems like such a simple thing and like, well, who would really want that? My goodness, their local newspapers would go, “You’re one of President Obama’s Champions of Change,” and to see what’s happening, the magic that’s happening on the ground, I found it very satisfying.
I think the work that we did around gender equity through the Council on Women and Girls that’s now become the United State of Women, is very important to me. Having been a young single mom with resources and support and everything going for me, I still felt like I was hanging on by my fingertips, and so being an advocate for working moms who are doing two shifts of a minimum-wage job and leaving their children in circumstances that they don’t think are safe, and not getting equal pay, and not having any flexibility, and not having benefits like paid leave and paid sick days — all of which I had and I still struggled — those are the people who I really would like to advocate for now.
The work we did around working families in the White House, I thought was important, and one of the paradigm shifts we tried to do is to say, “Look. Don’t just do this because it’s good for women. Do this because it is a business imperative. It’s good for our economy. It’s good for our country, if we want to be globally competitive, to be able to attract and retain the most diverse talent possible.” That takes intentionality, and you have to be purpose-driven, and you have to measure it, and people have to be held accountable if they let it slip.
If you just simply do it as a nice-to-do, then when the economy gets tough or your business gets challenged, it’s the first thing you cut. I want it to be a part of the business plan, and so I have enjoyed seeing traction around that, and more and more companies are recognizing how important it is and then holding themselves out as a good place to do business for working families, and I think that was valuable to me.
So, when you had these eight years, which was unprecedented, to be elected twice in this way, especially an African-American man being president of the United States, a big deal, things changed. Have you been surprised by the change? Then we’ll talk about it in the next section.
Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, look. Elections have consequences. I supported Hillary Clinton. I thought that she would continue much of the important work that President Obama had worked so hard for, and many of the work that was unfinished, we felt comfortable that she would work hard to attend to, and so no, this has been a very fundamental shift, but elections have consequences.
With the changes that happened, there was that famous picture of you all, and you’re in the middle of it; this incredibly diverse group of people looking so depressed in the portico, there, right?
It was the day after the 2016 election.
It was soul crushing, I think is the word I used.
Yeah. But the picture was just, everything.
One photograph …
Told the whole story. Plus, the diversity of the people in the group.
President Obama had surrounded himself with a group of advisers that reflected the diversity of our country.
How do you explain it, and what are your thoughts since?
Well, after a lot of thought and going through the natural stages of grief, sometimes all in the same day, I think where I come out is I’m concerned about the fact that we could have an election as important as the presidential election and 43 percent of our country didn’t vote. And so, much of the work that I’ve been doing across the last couple of years is around civic engagement.
Last summer, Mrs. Obama and I formed an organization called When We All Vote, and it’s non-partisan. Our intention is to just remind people about what their civic responsibility is. And the most fundamental and basic is to vote and participate and find out who’s running for office and make sure that they reflect your values, and to try to increase the number of people who turn out to vote.
So I’m troubled in this era there are so many people, particularly young people, who are shunning all institutions. And they create their own community in the palm of their hand on their device. I think that’s not how democracy works.
Sure. I just was having this discussion with my son, who’ll be voting in the 2020 election. We were talking about the various candidates. He’s met some of them, too. He’s lucky enough to be able to have met some of them. He’s like, “I don’t know if I’m going to even vote, sometimes.” I’m like, “Oh, no.”
You have to vote.
I was like, literally, “If you’d like to keep both arms not broke …”
Did he say why he didn’t want to vote?
Well, I think he felt like he couldn’t make a difference. I think it was the, “What’s the difference?”
One vote doesn’t matter.
Yeah. I think it was after the Mueller thing. He’s like, “What’s the difference? It’s all fixed.” You know what I mean? It’s the cynicism. And this is a 16-year-old who reads widely and does have parents who are very attuned.
But if you think about the last presidential election, Hillary Clinton lost in three states by less than 100,000 votes. We used to, on the campaign trail for Barack Obama, talk about individual precincts where it could have been like, four votes difference. So every vote does actually matter. And not just does your vote matter …
Well, in this world, because the sides are so strongly against each other. They’re so close, too.
But the only way that changes is if we, the American people, decide we want something different. We went into Washington, for example, trying very hard to get Republicans to come and work with us, but I think what they assessed is that it wasn’t in their political interest to get caught working with us. That’s dysfunctional. You can’t have that in a big democracy the size of ours that’s as diverse as it is. You have to be willing to compromise. You have to be willing to look for that common ground. You can’t just simply say, “My way or the highway”.
What could you all have done differently? Because that was from the get-go, though.
Well, you know what? I think part of the challenge was that we were operating in good faith that if we just kept reaching out … and we tried to explain to them logically why they should, if we embraced the Affordable Care Act — which was modeled after Governor Romney’s law in Massachusetts, a bipartisan law — that if we did that, that that would require them to come and participate. And we kept saying, “Well, when will the fever break? When will they understand that it is in their self-interest?” And I think what they were banking on, and what you’ve seen them try to do in several states, is to actually suppress the vote.
They’ve talked to Stacey Abrams about that.
They were probably delighted that 43 percent didn’t come out and have their votes counted, or didn’t even participate. I think that that’s not democracy. We shouldn’t have people celebrating or opposing laws that make it easier to vote. And this whole notion of vote fraud is preposterous. There is just no evidence of vote fraud that would justify the kinds of laws we’ve seen in states that are designed, frankly, to assure that young people and people of color don’t participate in the democracy.
The only way that I can do something about that and feel empowered is to go out and talk about the importance of voting. We, through our organization, work collaboratively with a whole range of organizations on the ground. The Parkland young people, for example, traveled the country last summer encouraging people to vote around this issue of reducing gun violence. And they didn’t just go to blue states. They went to red states. They would go outside of their event and talk to the demonstrators. That’s the kind of behavior I think the adults around our country should be modeling. And that’s not the environment that we’re currently in.
So, what could you all have done differently? Because sometimes I think, “How did this shift so quickly?” You know what I mean? Was it festering there? Or did you not listen to this other part of the country that was angry?
No. We engaged broadly, and if you look at the policies that President Obama put in place, they were designed to address the needs of people who feel like they’re struggling. You know this, so you’re a listener, that when President Obama took office, we were in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We were losing 750,000-800,000 jobs a month. The unemployment rate had skyrocketed, and he cut that in half under his watch.
But I say that to say that we were going through a really tough time, and the uncertainty that came with millions of people losing their jobs, millions of people losing their homes, really upset the fabric of our country. People who wanted to know that their children would be better off than they were, now had their adult children living in their basement and wondering, “Will I be able to retire with dignity?”
Another good example is, I can remember we were trying very hard to get a range of constituencies to support what we wanted to do to make college more affordable, making community colleges free for the first couple years. And I talked to the head of AARP, and I said, “This is maybe not your issue, but we’d love your support.” And the head of it,said to me, at the time, “Oh, no. You don’t understand how many of our members have college debt.” Here you’ve worked your whole life, and you’ve retired, and you’re still paying back your student loans? And so, I say that as like, that’s one of many policies that were really designed to help the people who seem to feel left out.
I think some of this has to do with the influx of social media. When I was growing up, whatever Walter Cronkite said once a day, that was the law, right? And now you have a blurring of the lines between news and editorial and entertainment. It’s also no longer a loss leader. People didn’t use to make money off of the news when I was growing up. Now, it’s big business, and so you have a misalignment of interests. People like to see a food fight as opposed to … what are the implications of a moral equivalence? Well, no. Maybe one person’s actually right, factually, and the other person is wrong. We don’t have a mechanism in this new media environment.
And I don’t mean just social media, but I mean this environment of entertainment, to just say, “This is fact.” And what we’ve learned is that repetition, even in facts that are untrue, does begin to sink in.
I remember when we first heard — well, two things, either the birther movement, or that President Obama was a Muslim. We thought, “Well, who would believe that?” Obviously, he was born in Hawaii, he’s a Christian. Why would somebody believe something like that? Well, you know what? Because they just repeated it over and over and over again.
Well, the current president did, actually.
Yeah, well, he led the birther movement.
So, we weren’t really prepared for that, I think.
Was that a mistake? Did you not see that this was effective?
I think we should have seen better just how diabolical the strategy was to try to hold on to the status quo. I mean, look, we knew change was hard, and people who kind of romance the notion of hope and change, if you listen to President Obama’s remarks, he talked about the grit and hard work, and resilience of change, and how it doesn’t happen overnight. When the Supreme Court comes down and upholds marriage equality, you think it’s a thunderbolt, until you remember the decades of people who worked on marriage equality state by state by state, going from two when he first took office to 37 in the District of Columbia, and how that cultural shift actually does influence policy and the law.
And so I think yeah, maybe we should have been a little bit more aware of what the impact of this new environment might be. But we thought if we played it straight that we would be doing the people’s work. And I’m proud of the fact that President Obama did continue to reach out and he did try to break that fever, if you will. And I was just stunned to see how politicians were so willing to put those short-term political interests ahead of what was good for their country.
The only way that changes is if American people demand it. The only reason why we don’t have sensible gun laws now to keep guns out of the wrong hands with this epidemic we have of gun violence, both of the 30,000-plus people who die each year, two-thirds commit suicide. We’ve just seen, in the last few weeks, evidence of that. And it only changes when we, the people demand it.
All right, we see that — you used the term diabolical and fever, that it hasn’t backed off. And you, yourself were the subject of it with Roseanne Barr saying those terrible things about you. Which should come as no surprise to anyone who watches Roseanne Barr tweet. She’s really … does a lot of unhinged quotes. What was your reaction when you saw that? Because that took off, and by the way, there were a lot of bots involved in making it even worse.
Well, this is the thing …
She said something awful.
But it’s symptomatic of a bigger problem. I guess that’s what I try to get to the heart of. It’s like, when are we going to get to the point where we can disagree without being disagreeable? When are we going to get past issues where we focus on our differences, as opposed to what we have in common? And I think, unfortunately, social media allows a veil of anonymity where people say perfectly dreadful things to each other.
But that wasn’t dreadful. How did you feel in that? Did you see it? Did someone alert you to it?
I was alerted to it through the press. But, look, I’m fine. I’m well loved. I put myself in the arena. I accept the fact that I’m going to get criticism. Some of which is atrocious and unfair, and some of it might be justified. That’s the nature of it. I’m far more worried about people who do not have the ability to protect themselves. And I worry that we’re getting in the habit of talking at each other on social media rather than to one another.
I believe that life is about relationships. And I believe that when we are appealing to our greater good, when we are looking for what we have in common, when we are solving problems by listening to people who have differences of opinions with us, we actually make better decisions, and that you can change your mind from time to time. I think the environment that we’re in right now makes it hard to do that. And so, I do believe the way to break the fever is when the American people decide to demand it.
Well, how do you do that?
Vote, for one.
Here she is, for example, in your experience, she’s on social media. She’s mad and so she says something perfectly awful. And then it whips around and gets her. She gets fired, there are all kinds of repercussions for what she said. It’s not like she didn’t pay for it. But that’s what happens. It creates this sort of terrible thing, reaction, payment, terrible thing, react … It goes in a circle. I can’t imagine that’s what you thought would happen over just some …
I didn’t really give it much thought. Because I’m too busy thinking about, are we going to lose health care for all Americans?
You didn’t say anything. You also didn’t say anything.
No, I didn’t. Because I don’t want to be this story. I want to put the spotlight on things that are important, that we should all be focusing on. And you shouldn’t get sucked into that vortex. That’s not how I operate. I would much rather keep the spotlight where it should be. People who are committing themselves to service should never make the story about themselves. They should make the spotlight go on the issues that count.
But the uses of social … Like you’re saying, was, we should have paid more attention to it. It has more power than ever. President Trump uses it daily. He used it 20 times today.
It can be a powerful tool for good. I think the Parkland young people are a good example of how they use social media to motivate the country to turn out in record numbers for March for Our Lives, where we had hundreds and hundreds of rallies around the country, including here in our nation’s capital. They would not have been able to galvanize all of that without social media. But it also can be used for a force for bad. And you’re right, when you throw in bots and all of the ways that you can manipulate it, it’s hard to control. And we’re in the midst of it. We’re in the midst of this technological revolution. It’s hard to get ahead of it. It’s hard to say, “How do we progress?”
So what do you suggest, if you were still in office? Because obviously, this administration, it’s just not going to do anything. It’s benefiting from the chaos that social media creates, I think. How would you deal with it now? Because you all didn’t do any regulation on these platforms. There has been none.
Not so far. And I think, whatever …
Did you think about it at the time?
We did, but I think it was premature.
Because you passed on Google. Sure.
I mean, a lot of what’s come out in the last two years, obviously we didn’t have the benefit of that at the time. One of the things I have said when I have been with tech companies is, be a part of the solution. Help us, those who are in regulatory roles, to figure out what could we do to minimize the harm. Isn’t that what public services do?
You’re on the board of …
I’m on the board of Lyft-
Yeah. About to go public, right?
And 2U, two tech companies. I joined the boards of the three companies that I’m on, Ariel Investments as well, because I have confidence in the CEOs and their mission and their values. I associate myself with companies where I feel I have those shared values. I think what we need is greater civic responsibility. Both from individuals, who, as you mentioned about your own son, don’t feel empowered, as well as from businesses who recognize that they have to take the long view.
And right now, in this environment, whether it’s quarterly earnings or whether it’s social media, it’s so easy to get caught up in the 24-hour cycle, as opposed to recognizing that big problems mean you’ve got to be able to look down into the future. I encourage people who are in policy roles now to try to be mindful of the long-term vision. There were missed opportunities on our watch where we could have solved some big, big problems if the Republicans hadn’t been trying to score kind of small, political points.
With the internet companies, right now, if you were advising, if President Obama was still president, what would you do now? What would you suggest?
I think they should think about how to minimize harm. And I used to say this, frankly, with the banks. I’d say, “Look, you’re spending a lot of money on lobbyists to oppose Dodd-Frank. Why don’t you think about, do some honest introspection about what you might have done differently that might have prevented millions of people from losing their homes and their jobs, and the huge amount of taxpayer-funded money that had to infuse, to stabilize our financial markets. Why don’t you think about what you could have done differently and why don’t you be a part of the solution? Because I think regulation will come. And the question is, will there be unintended consequences? The question will be, does it solve the problem? Does it actually address the issue?
And having the smartest minds who created these companies being a part of the solution, that’s not, to me, the fox guarding the chicken house, it’s saying, “Be proactive and recognize that in this new world, we still should be committed to minimizing harm and being forces for good.”
So far, they haven’t been proactive except recently. Today Facebook finally decided white supremacy, perhaps, is not such a great thing on their platform. Which to me is sort of shocking that it took so long.
Well, you have this tension between privacy and social good.
First Amendment, I get it.
And safety, and trying to prevent misdeeds. I mean, you’ve got all these perfectly valid public policies that sometimes butt heads against each other. And we should be willing to roll up our sleeves and really noodle through it. And I don’t have the magic bullet. I’m not sure there is even one magic bullet.
It also has to keep evolving, because let’s face it, if you just look at cybersecurity, 10 years ago, the amount of money that companies and government were spending on cybersecurity was a fraction of what they’re spending now. And the bad guys get better and better. And so you’ve got to keep ahead of the bad guys, too, right?
We’re focused on what might have happened in our last election where we should be thinking about what we’re going to do to preserve the integrity of our next election. Because if the American people start to lose confidence in our rule of law or our democracy or our election process, then you don’t have a democracy anymore. And then when people opt out, it’s hard to be critical. Right now, I can say, “No. Opt in. Opt in. Get involved.”
There is a stranglehold of investment in the status quo. The only way you change that is when ordinary people find their voices and recognize the power that they have, individually and collectively. And I’ve seen one person change a room, change a city, change a state, change a country. The power of that one voice is something that we don’t talk enough about.
No. But I mean, you can talk a lot about it, but it takes them a while to change. I mean, just myself, I’ve been yelling at them for two years about this issue around hate speech and the impact it has and the abuse of the system and stuff like that. I don’t necessarily find them to be malevolent people, and you’ve had some encounters with them. It’s more, they just don’t do anything. So, ultimately, government has to move in and do something about it. I don’t know another choice. I’m trying to figure out now, if you can’t get them to understand …
Change takes time. People have business models that have worked for them and they’ve been successful and it takes a minute to realize, “Oh, my goodness. I need to relook at this and figure out if there are ways that I can improve upon it.” And pressure is important. I think the pressure that you and many others have been putting on, to force innovation, is important.
And I think regulation is the role of government. That’s what they’re there to do, is to regulate in a way that’s appropriate. All I’m arguing for is, I want them to make informed regulations. And I think I’m concerned that the level of familiarity with technology isn’t perhaps what it should be among the members who will be doing the regulations, and so we should all be trying to educate them.
Some of them are, more than you think.
It’s absolutely not a homogenous group, but we need everybody to be up to speed. We need them to be making sophisticated, complicated, informed decisions.
Can I ask you, why did you join Lyft? Why did you join that board? Because I’m sure you had your pick of boards.
I was very impressed both with Logan Green and John Zimmer, the co-founders. I liked the fact that they came at it from the perspective of how do we improve the urban environment fundamentally?
How do we use transportation as a way of getting people to let go of their love affair with their cars and make the ease of transportation better because that fundamentally improves the quality of life? And when I was both the commissioner of planning and the chair of the Chicago Transit Authority Board, I looked at transportation in the context of the urban environment and how we could strengthen it, improve it, and get people out of their cars and back to enjoying their life. And I thought that those two guys got that. And I thought that they have a strong commitment to diversity and to supporting social justice and a really strong business plan.
Are you ready for the IPO?
Well, you know, I can’t even talk about that.
[editor’s note: this interview was recorded before Lyft started trading on the NASDAQ on Friday; read all about what that IPO means here]
I know that, I was going to ask you about it.
So what is the path forward from your perspective? Where are we right now? Look, the Mueller report. Any thoughts?
No. Look, when I left the White House, I spent some time doing some soul-searching about what to do in my next chapter of my life. I turned 60 the week after the election and that’s a pretty big number.
And I’ve always had a job since I was 16. I’ve worked at least part-time. This is the first time in my life where I thought, “Well, I’ve had the best job in the world. I don’t really want a job, but what do I want to do? What do I care about? What are the issues that move me?” And they were pretty easy to identify because they are ones that I’ve spent a lot of time on over the course of my career. And I thought, “Well, let me dedicate myself to that and let me not spend a lot of time fretting over things that I have no control over,” because I don’t find that terribly healthy for me.
So I care a lot about gender equity. I care a lot about reducing gun violence. I care a lot about reforming our criminal justice system and I care a lot about getting people civically engaged. And so I have affiliated myself with institutions that support those core missions, from the United State of Women to When We All Vote to joining the faculty at the University of Chicago Law School to helping President Obama with the Obama Foundation. I try to keep myself focused on that. That’s not to say I don’t watch television and I’m not aware of what’s going on in current events, but the focus of my attention has to be on being a force for good. And I leave it to others to be the pundits.
Is it disheartening, though, because there’s a lot of it like the Obamacare thing yesterday? The not defending the thing. Does it feel like you’ve done all this work and then, “Oh, well”?
I get asked that a lot. People go, “Oh, my gosh, you spent eight years there and you worked so hard and you must feel particularly bad.” No. What I feel bad about isn’t about my hard work. What I feel bad about is that person right now with a preexisting condition, wondering whether or not they’re going to end up in bankruptcy because they’re going to lose their health care. Or the young people who want to go out and start a new business, and then they think, “Well, I’m not going to be able to get insurance on the exchange. And so I’m going to be gambling with my life,” or parents with sick kids who know that their kids are going to grow up without the ability to get insured. So I look at what’s happening, not in the context of what it does to my life, but what it does to the millions of people around our country who are going to be hurt.
If you look at the rollbacks in the environmental protection arena, walking away from the Climate Accord that we struck with nearly 200 countries from across the world who all agree climate change is a problem and now we’re suddenly rolling all of that back. So it’s disturbing for me because of the impact it’s going to have on people’s lives. And so, yes, I am very worried about that. But I also was mindful of the fact that elections have consequences. The only way to reverse that trend isn’t for me to fret about a Mueller report, but it’s for me to get out there and organize people to appreciate the power of their vote, the power of their participation. And that’s the only way to change the status quo.
So how does that change? Because I’ve been talking to people a lot lately about that, about talking to Stacey Abrams, she’s doing Fair Fight, all kinds of things like that.
How do you get people in that mode? Because one of the ways is voting online. How do you imagine those things are going to go forward?
We should revolutionize the way we vote. But, in order to do that, we have to care who our secretary of state is. And one of the efforts that we have with When We All Vote is to remind people about the fact that all elections have consequences, not just who the president of the United States is. Our elections are run by state government through the secretary of state’s office, and most people couldn’t name their secretary of state.
That’s the person who, as they prepare their budget, determines whether they invest in technology that makes it easier to vote or whether, as is the case in Georgia, the person who was running against Stacey Abrams who tried to put through a law that made it much harder for people to vote.
Right. Effectively, apparently.
Well, effectively, even though the courts rebutted the law twice, but those kind of sinister acts that make it harder for people to vote have to be challenged. And it’s only the people in those states who can challenge them. If you see your secretary of state has made it impossible for you to vote early, and so let’s say you’re working in a factory and your shift is what it is and you don’t have a day off and then you can’t manage the childcare. And so you miss your opportunity to vote. You should be challenging your secretary of state to say, “Why don’t I have early vote? Why can’t I vote online?”
Why not a day off for a vote?
Why don’t I have a day off to vote? Why don’t I have an opportunity to maximize my potential to vote, not suppress it? And so that accountability that I’m talking about can only come from the people. And look, I get it. People look at government now and they just think it’s sausage and it’s loud people yelling at each other about issues. And they’re worried about what’s going to happen in their lives. And what we have to do is help them see the nexus between their life and what is happening by the people who are elected to represent them. And sometimes that nexus isn’t as strong as it should be. So I’m interested in …
So what are the big topics among Democrats? Are you politically involved right now? Are you going to be?
I have met with several of the candidates who are running for office. I’ve offered them my best advice. I’ve encouraged them to keep the long view, which is not beating each other up so badly that they go into the general election wounded, because I think we need to take back the White House. And I think we have an embarrassment of riches among the candidates.
There’s a lot of them.
There is a lot of, not just a lot of them in numbers, but in quality.
Yeah. Different. Very different people. You ran two presidential elections. What is your version of the strategy? Is it just picking topics like health care or privacy or whatever it might be? Elizabeth Warren’s done this big proposal about …
A very impressive proposal. Really sound policy work. Yes.
Right. But some of them — like the breaking apart all the technology companies — that’s quite bold. It’s also not agreed with by a lot of people in tech and others.
I think people should put their ideas out there. I give Elizabeth Warren credit for having done some homework and come up with a straw man. And I know her well enough to know that she’s interested and curious about solutions and not wedded to just one plan. And so I think what people want to see you do is to be authentic and honest and show them, tangibly, that you have their best interests at heart. And I think that, notwithstanding the current climate, that the people who ultimately rise to the top in the Democratic Party are going to be people who build a big tent, an inclusive tent, recognize that we’re not monolithic, that we have room for lots of different opinions. That’s part of the magic of the Democratic Party. We don’t necessarily all fall in line with one another.
That’s also one of the detracting… They do fall into line over there, too.
They do. They do, but I think we celebrate diverse ideas with common values and I think you could have both. So I think it’s premature for me to guess where this may go, but I’m heartened by the quality of people who want to put their name in the hat.
What are the big issues, do you think, in this next election?
I think the economy is always front and center. I think health care.
Well, the economy’s good, so…
The economy is good, but as you know, there are predictors that the economy might not be good for that much longer. And so what are we doing today to anticipate what happens if there is a tightening coming down the line? What are we going to do to make sure that we have affordable health care available for all Americans? And if there are changes that are made to the Affordable Care Act, how do we ensure that they’re strengthening it, not weakening it? I’m troubled by the fact that the number of uninsured has gone up in the last couple of years after having stayed down, having declined under our watch. I think we have to be concerned about climate change.
We have to recognize the fact, we can’t throw up our hands and say, “There’s nothing we can do about it.” Every bold idea that has ever been implemented in our country, when it was first presented, people thought, “Well, that’s going to never happen.” It always seems impossible until it’s inevitable. And so I think we need the moonshots, but we also need a path to the moonshot and along that path we have to be flexible.
The other thing I think our candidates have to do is they have to listen, which is part of the magic of Iowa, is that it’s very detail-oriented and you have to sit around a table, not at a big rally, but with six people and actually listen to what’s happening in the lives of those people to ensure that your policies reflect their needs.
Right. How do you look, let’s say, stay on this issue, two more things, the new crop of congresswomen — a phenomenon that some people are comparing to Obama, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, but also Underwood. There’s a whole bunch of them, but she’s, Ocasio-Cortez is pretty much the big name. How do you look at something like that? She has the Green New Deal, which is a big idea.
I give her credit for a big idea, and I think, look, part of the courage of putting an idea out there is recognizing that it’s going to be tested and it’s going to be challenged. And the magic of social media now is that you don’t need to have any money to put your idea out there. You just put it out there and let people debate its merits. And so I think we should be encouraging those big ideas and we shouldn’t just be setting up a structure in Washington where they’re extinguished upon first sighting. It took seven presidents to pass the Affordable Care Act. Seven presidents tried to do something bold.
We’re still on immigration.
Well, and there’s a lot we’re still waiting to do. But I would say that also when Medicare was first passed, it seemed enormous. When Social Security was first passed, it was overwhelming. Change takes time. People have to get used to it, they have to realize that it’s going to improve their lives and there is a normal healthy skepticism about change, even change what you think might be for the better. And I think part of the job of those who get in the arena and run for office is to appreciate there is understandable skepticism about government.
Do you think that we’ll be having politicians who are personalities? I mean, that’s what’s happened. Like, look.
I think that part of leadership is substance and part of it is inspiration, and I think you need both to actually have a positive impact. You can’t simply be show. There has to be some underlying policy and thought behind it. The advantage of the campaign for president and for every other office is that there is time for the willing to really explore where the candidates stand on issues. And what’s their track record that would let you believe that would actually implement what they’re espousing?
Finishing up, in your book, you have a lot of concepts you want talk about, of how … what you’ve learned. Can you give me five or three or four things you think that’re critically important that you are trying to impart to especially young people? I think you were aiming … especially young women that you were trying to get through.
Well, so one I already mentioned, which is have the courage to get outside your comfort zone and embrace the adventure of the swerve and the zigzag that happened in my life in retrospect made perfectly good sense. But at the time it was terrifying. At every new opportunity that came along, they never seem to come at opportune moments and they always terrified me and I always wondered, “Well, will I be able to step up?” And I want people to relax and just enjoy that sense of adventure and the exhilaration of when you finally make the leap. Just what it can do to change your life.
Another thing, and this is perhaps particularly to young working moms, is that I used to think when I was younger, when I was convinced I was Superwoman, I just knew I was Superwoman, that the reason why I was struggling was because I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t efficient enough, I wasn’t organized enough. If I’d slept fewer hours, maybe just maybe it wouldn’t have been so hard. And what I want to say, and you know this too, it’s hard work raising children and having a career, even if you have everything going for you, it’s still hard.
I encourage young, working parents, and I’m delighted to see so many men take a much more active role in raising their children. I’m delighted when I see companies who offer both paternity and maternity leave on par. Not one week for the guy and six months for the woman. No, we need to have equal, it sends a signal about how important it is for our young men to get involved in their children’s lives, too. But I want them to stop pretending that it’s easy.
Pretending to …
Because we do a disservice. I was like, “Oh, no, I’ve got it. I’ve got everything together. I don’t need any help. I’ve got this.” And I pretended it to myself and I pretended to my friends. And I think, what’s better about your generation is everybody’s like, “No, this is really hard. I need some help and I need my employer to recognize that it’s hard.” I was so trying to be like all the other guys. When I was nine months pregnant, sitting in a conference room trying to close a deal and I kept, you’ll appreciate this, I kept getting up to leave and it’s, “Oh, I’m going to the Xerox machine. I’m going to go and check my phone.”
Going to the bathroom.
Going to the bathroom, because that’s what you do when you’re eight-and-a-half months pregnant.
And I mean, in my book I talk about menopause. I think we should stop feeling like subjects like that are taboo. It’s a natural part of the aging process and women go through it and yet we don’t talk about it. I try to talk about it with humor, but I just want to kind of pull back, though, the patina of subjects that we just try to ignore.
Most of them are related to women, but go ahead. You got it. Good luck.
Well, because the workforce has been so historically dominated by men, but now women comprise half of the workforce. We’re going to college in great numbers.
Well, it’s one of these long-past-time things. I mean, come on, like at the same thing with Facebook and white supremacy. I’m like, “Please, really? Just discovered?”
But I think part of my message is, and I would say this to you too, is that we can’t be discouraged because it’s taken two years to affect change. Change just takes much longer than it should. And when it finally comes about, it always seems like, “Wow,” but you ignore the decades of work that went into it.
See, Valerie, that’s why you’re in policy and I’m an annoying yelling-ness. That’s what I keep …
But keep nudging from the outside! We need nudgers.
This is why I couldn’t be involved exactly now because I’d be like, now, I’d be like, I want to go the fascist route.
Well, you have to have …
This is what you shall do.
You have to have the fierce urgency of now coupled with an enormous amount of patience.
I guess I just think if I were you and watching this long-term thing, I’d be like, “Oh, crap. This is just, are you kidding me? After all that work?”
You know what? You do the best you can when you have the baton.
I know. That’s when you’re senior adviser to the president, I’m not. That’s why I’d be like, “Oh, crap, Jesus,” I’d run out on the White House lawn and scream and stuff like that. It wouldn’t be appropriate.
Well, that’s why you do what you do, I do what I do.
I guess. I thought it was appropriate in the current administration. I can certainly do that and do stuff like that. Anyway, Valerie, I really appreciate you being here. I hope to talk to you more soon.
Good luck on the Lyft IPO. That’s what, Friday or something, but soon? I’m hoping to talk to those guys too, once they can talk again. Anyway, she’s the author of a new book. Valerie Jarrett, she was senior adviser to President Barack Obama. She’s a senior adviser to the Obama Foundation and the author of a new book called Finding My Voice: The Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward. Thank you for coming on the show.