For Valerie Jarrett, President Obama's senior adviser, and Desirée Rogers, the White House social secretary, life revolves around the agendas of the president and the first lady and their commitments to the American people. The way they see it, life doesn't get much better than this.
They each instinctively have a sense of what is right for the other, forming a collaborative spirit and an unshakable trust that's immediately apparent. They're as at ease working together to engage Americans, making the White House the public's house, and discussing economic issues as they were convening about what to wear during our photo shoot at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Rogers easily transitioned from a Louis Vuitton jacket to an Oscar de la Renta cocktail dress and spoke of some of her favorite designers: Chloé, Jil Sander, and Thakoon. And when Jarrett arrived, she knew right away what she would—and wouldn't—wear.
The photo shoot was a celebratory hour of two longtime friends engaging in a rare slow moment during a very serious time for our country. Rogers teased Jarrett about being taller than her when Jarrett posed on the steps above her on the staircase. "Don't get used to this, chickie," Rogers joked. But what's at the core of their relationship is trust in each other, in the Obamas, and in the country. You get the sense they wake up every day and say, "Bring it on America, we can take it."
On Friendship, Focus, and the Future
"I have known Valerie for a very long time. We are very different, but fundamentally the same," Rogers says. "We have the same values, the same desire to do excellent work and to help others." The Obama campaign and presidency have brought them together for a common goal. "We have a very strong foundation in our relationship. We've been through a lot together and trust is really not an issue; it is built. No one can disrupt that foundation," Rogers adds. "And we have great fun together. Valerie is more conservative than I am, to some extent, and I'm like, ‘Come on, let's try this!'"
"I admire her extraordinary ability to keep a thousand balls up in the air at one time and never let one even come close to the ground," Jarrett says about Rogers. "She is very organized and disciplined, and yet she has this incredible spirit for fun and innovation. She has been a breath of fresh air to the social secretary's office. She uses it not only as an opportunity to have events in the White House, but she connects the events to the values and philosophy of the president and the first lady." Jarrett describes Rogers as the best friend she could possibly have, and is quick to praise her for what she calls a combination of intellect, wit, creativity, and an inclusive spirit.
Jarrett and Rogers both also consider President and Mrs. Obama among their dear friends. "Our friendship is based on having known each other for a long time and understanding each other," Jarrett says. "I know their priorities, I know their values, I understand why they're here. So I think it actually helps me serve them better to be their friend—for them and for our country." Jarrett finds their friendship a source of comfort and camaraderie. "It's nice to have friends who understand what you're going through firsthand because they're right there living the experience with you," she adds.
Being a welcoming host and making those around you comfortable are the hallmarks of the perfect first lady, and these are things Rogers says Michelle Obama does with aplomb. "The warmth is just overflowing and it's not an act; it's who they are, it's what they believe, what they think is right," Rogers says. "I feel that same way, too. So we're always in sync about what I call ‘the guest experience'—how people should feel and be treated once they're in the White House."
Michelle Obama shares the president's values, his love of America, and his commitment to public service. She also understands her role as first lady and the serious responsibility that comes with it. "She's a role model," Jarrett adds. "She connects with people in a very down-to-earth way and has a way of making people feel instantly comfortable." Meeting the first lady can be somewhat intimidating, but she puts people at ease "with a very simple gesture: She pays attention to people. She reads them well and is a good judge of people."
President Obama has a singular focus on what's important to the American people, never allowing himself to be distracted. "Any decisions he makes, from the time he gets up in the morning until the time he goes to bed at night, are all measured by whether or not they are in the best interest of the American people," Jarrett says. "He always says, ‘Let's do what's right, let's make decisions that are fair and consistent with our values and consistent with strengthening our country, regaining our footing on the global stage,'" she says.
Through highs and lows over the 24 years of their friendship, and now with the enormous challenges he faces both at home and abroad, Jarrett says President Obama always maintains an even temperament. "He does not govern out of emotion, never out of anger. He has the ability to remove the drama from every situation and return to that focus on the American people," Jarrett says. "I've seen him make decisions that are putting the American people first and what's right first. That's hard to do when emotions run as high as they do as president; the implications of his decisions are enormous. And yet he always returns to that strength and courage to say, ‘What is really right here?' And that's what I think we want in a president."