White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, 52, is a longtime friend of Barack and Michelle Obama. As an aide to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in 1991, Jarrett hired Michelle to work for the city. Before joining Obama's campaign, Jarrett ran a real estate development firm. Now her portfolio includes acting as a liaison with state and local officials and working to improve cities and the lives of women and girls. She spoke with U.S. News in late April about the first lady's debut. Excerpts:
What does Mrs. Obama's relationship with the president say about him?
He appreciates strong, intelligent, accomplished women. He's not intimidated by that, by her, and I think that sends a message about his view of women. They have a very close relationship as equals. And he's selected strong women for key positions, such as Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton, Secretary [of Homeland Security Janet] Napolitano, and Secretary [of Labor Hilda] Solis. He likes to be surrounded by women who are bright and have opinions and aren't shy about sharing their views.
What's the essence of Michelle Obama?
Michelle is extremely grounded and down to earth. She calls it as she sees it. In today's world, where so much is kind of nuanced or superficial, Michelle is, you know, what you see is what you get. I think that's part of why not just the American people but people around the world have fallen in love with her. It's as if they feel that they can connect to her because she's so open and revealing about herself, and her willingness to do that allows people in and allows them to see a little bit of themselves in her.
What's their relationship like?
She and the president are kindred spirits. They both grew up worlds apart—with the president in Hawaii and Indonesia and Michelle on the South Side of Chicago—but yet their families instilled in them the same core values: work hard, treat people the way you would want them to treat you, give back to your community, accept personal responsibility, and be a role model. They share a good sense of humor. Laughter is important. Particularly when you've had a hard day, I'm sure that he knows that waiting for him is a loving family that can make him laugh and take his mind off the weighty challenges of the presidency, and he can go back to just being a dad and a husband.
How did she prepare for this singular role?
She certainly read a great deal. Laura Bush was exceedingly gracious and helpful preparing Michelle. Secretary Clinton has also been very helpful, because Secretary Clinton had a daughter in the White House. But Michelle's bright, she's a quick study, and she had a clear idea of what her priorities would be in terms of the family and the kinds of issues that she was going to be involved in: work-life balance, military spouses, national service, nutrition and health, and the garden that she's planted. These are all priorities that she's had for a long time.
How does having her mother, Marian Robinson, live in the White House help her practically and emotionally?
In countless ways. Michelle and the president both have very close relationships with Mrs. Robinson. She has been a consistent, steady, and reliable presence in the lives of the girls since they were born. She is a part of their nuclear family and always has been, and so having her here provided an additional layer of stability for the girls. She is someone who Michelle trusts completely, so she can confide in her mother. I mean, there's nothing like mom, having your mom around, when you're making this huge life change.
Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson, Oregon State's basketball coach, is distinguished in his own right.
Their parents raised two very accomplished children.
Michelle's parents were determined to sacrifice so that their children could reach for their dreams. Michelle's father, a blue-collar worker for the city of Chicago, had a very challenging disability in multiple sclerosis. He died at an early age. Michelle often talks about watching her father get up and painstakingly get dressed and go to work every day. There was never any self-pity. There was only hard work and love for his family and support for their dreams.
Mrs. Obama extracted a promise from the president, then a candidate, that he would quit smoking if he was going to run. Where's that right now?
He's done really well. In the 20 years I've known him, I have never once seen him smoke.
Is he still using Nicorette?
He is. That I do see, him chewing the gum, which probably helps a great deal.
A Gallup Poll in June 2008 said that 43 percent of people viewed Mrs. Obama favorably. Now it's 72 percent. How did she manage the turnaround?
It wasn't a turnaround. It was just people getting to know her. To know Michelle is to love Michelle. Earlier, when reporters would ask questions about her, I would just say, "Just give her time." She was a complete unknown on the national stage when she first came out in support of the president.
What has been her biggest challenge?
The challenge for them both is that you really do give up your life in terms of privacy and spontaneity, so you have to really work hard to have some degree of normalcy. I mean, Michelle now can't just decide, "Oh, I think I'm going to the bookstore and browse for a while," which is something that both she and the president used to like to do. You probably don't even think about going to a bookstore. Or a grocery store. Or a florist. Just a walk in the park with your children holding hands is now televised around the world.
One woman told me she preferred a "Laura Bush type: a gentle, wind-beneath-my-wings type." Are such expectations a burden?
Michelle doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about the scrutiny. She worries about things that she can control. So all she's going to do is to continue to be herself. She is going to dress the way she wants to dress, and she's going to be who she is, and she's going to get involved in the kinds of issues that she cares about, and my guess is the vast majority of people are going to find that endearing and terrific. Part of what has made the president and first lady so immensely able to connect with people is that they are for real. One of the requirements of being for real is to be for real. It doesn't mean every single person is going to like every single thing you do.
I saw the Stevie Wonder tribute at the White House on PBS. The president and first lady exuded joy.
They had a ball that night. It was just pure fun. Michelle is a huge fan of Stevie Wonder. I can remember the first time that the president had Stevie Wonder speak to Michelle on the phone, she was just all atwitter. He's been a huge supporter and a great friend over the course of the campaign and now in the administration.
What would Mrs. Obama like as her legacy?
That she made a positive difference in many lives—and she's already done that, so that impact will only grow with time.