Obama’s former adviser Valerie Jarrett talks about Trump’s ‘flat-footed’ response to the pandemic and advocates letting more people vote early and by mail

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  • Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of Barack Obama who served as a senior adviser when he was president, says that during the transition Obama’s staff tried to prepare to the Trump administration for the possibility of a disease pandemic. But Jarrett says that instead of being prepared, the Trump administration was caught “flat-footed” and wasted critical time.
  • Jarrett says the time lost in the early days of the pandemic made it impossible for the US to use contact tracing for containment. She says better coordination within and outside the country would have made a huge impact on America’s ability to effectively control and treat COVID-19.
  • She adds that this is “where diplomatic relations really matter, coordination of relationships, nonpartisan relationships with state and local elected officials matter, and a good pulse of where the business community is.”
  • Jarrett is pushing to expand early voting, voting by mail, and online voter registration so people will not have to make what she calls the “horrible choice” of protecting their health or exercising their right to vote in November.
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Valerie Jarrett book cover finding my voice

Valerie Jarrett served as a senior adviser to President Barack Obama for his entire eight years in office and is a close friend and confidante of both the former president and the first lady Michelle Obama. She
is also the author of “Finding My Voice: When the Perfect Plan Crumbles, the Adventure Begins,” which was released on paperback April 14.

Jarrett, who The New York Times calls “the ultimate Obama insider,” sat down with Business Insider to discuss America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and what to expect for the 2020 election. Following is a transcript of the video.

Sara Silverstein: You have been around for many crises at the White House. For those of us that haven’t gotten to be behind closed doors, what is really happening that we don’t get to see or understand during something like this?

Valerie Jarrett: Well, it may vary from White House to White House. So, all I can tell you is that what we would do is try to gather all the facts and information coming from sources that were subject-matter specific. And so in the case of when we had to deal with, H1N1, or Ebola or Zika, then the CDC, the NIH, our National Security Council, State Department, Commerce Department, all the relative agencies would gather information and then we would try to have an all-of-government approach to our strategy to contain it.

Silverstein: And what do you think has been the best and worst parts of America’s response to COVID-19?

Jarrett: Well, COVID, I think we got pretty flat-footed, which is really disappointing, Sara, because, look,President Obama gave a speech in 2014 when he made it very clear that a pandemic was inevitable and likely in the next five years.

President Obama December 2, 2014 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Ebola
President Barack Obama spoke at the National Institutes of Health to discuss the Ebola outbreak on December 2, 2014, saying: ‘There may and likely will come a time in which we have both an airborne disease that is deadly. And in order for us to deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure — not just here at home, but globally — that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly.’ YouTube/The Obama White House

We prepared a thorough report in the transition, or kind of a road map of what we would advise in the case of a pandemic, given everything that we’d learned over those eight years – and we learned a great deal. We did a tabletop exercise to make sure that the new administration could hit the ground running, and we set up an office in the White House and the National Security Council, solely focused on pandemic responses. That office was dismantled – CDC’s funding was cut.

I think that, frankly, there was a very critical period of denial and kind of happy talk, and now we’re living with those consequences. I think the good news, and I feel confident saying this to being in New York, is that Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, given a really tough situation, given that this is ground zero, have handled this very well. I just turned off of Governor Cuomo’s press conference. He comes in with evidence, data, research, scientists, and he also talks about it from a human perspective, and I think that’s kind of what people are hungry for. We did not see that response coming from the federal government early on.

Silverstein: And for something like this that is such uncharted territory for us it’s hard to envision what things would have looked like if it had been handled differently. How many deaths, either more or less that we would have had, and economic consequences? What consequences do you think are marginally most different, based on either mistakes or decisions that were well-made?

Jarrett: It’s hard to prove a counterfactual, of course. I think in the case of pandemics, days matter. Weeks certainly matter. I’ll give you one good example. If we had really known what was going on early on, we could have done the contact tracing. It’s impossible now because everybody’s touched too many people, and you have so many people who are affected. But if you catch it early on, and some cities and countries have, then it’s easier for you to try to contain it.

The effect on the economy is, of course, devastating, and we’re in this tension between bringing back the economy and making sure that Americans are safe. You have to make sure Americans are safe first or else we’re just going to be in a vicious cycle.

And so I think it’s also important that there’s coordination among the different states. Obviously, we do not have borders that are – everybody travels throughout the United States, and so one state makes one decision and another state makes another decision, then it can defeat your purpose. And so I’m heartened that we have a regional cooperative effort here in the North and the Northeast, similarly going on the Pacific coast. I just think that it would be helpful if the federal government was coordinating as well. Another good example of where the coordination comes in, and I saw this heading up the office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs when I was working for President Obama, we were responsible for reaching out and talking and coordinating with a whole range of stakeholders, from the business community to mayors and governors, a whole of government coordinated the response. I think that’s so important.

We shouldn’t have governors, for example, bidding against one another for equipment. It should all be centrally bid, bring down the cost and then distribute it where the need is the greatest, not who pays the most money for it.

The other thing I would say that President Obama did is he really rallied our allies. Take Ebola, for example. We are so fortunate that Ebola didn’t come to our shores. Why? Because we really had a global approach to help contain it where it was. And so that’s an example of where diplomatic relations really matter, coordination of relationships, nonpartisan relationships with state and local elected officials matter, and a good pulse of where the business community is.

Silverstein: And so with federal social-distancing guidelines essentially expiring today, are you concerned about that, if everything will be left to state by state and local decision-making?

Jarrett: Yeah, I am concerned about it. Look, I take my cue from Dr. Tony Fauci, for example, with whom I worked very closely when I was in the White House, and it’s clear that he’s uneasy about this. And so I say, listen to the experts, listen to the people who spent their life researching pandemics, and let’s exert more caution today so that we don’t pay a price for it later.

I’d rather take a short-term hit on the economy, and I say this knowing how many people are out of work, and rent is due tomorrow. People are facing an unenviable choice of paying their rent, putting food on the table. A lot of people are suffering across our country, but I don’t want to see us right back where we are in a couple of months because we eased those restrictions too soon. So, I would say listen to the experts.

Obama valerie jarrett

Silverstein: And you worked with President Obama on the Affordable Care Act. Where do you think that we’re failing right now in healthcare in America? What do we need to tackle to prevent this from being such an unequal killer in the future?

Jarrett: Well, what we are seeing are great disparities, and the Affordable Care Act, one of the provisions allowed states to expand their Medicaid coverage, and we have 14 states that didn’t do that. So, we know that people are not able to, millions of people are not able to access healthcare under the Affordable Care Act because of decisions that those states made.

We also put funds in the budget under the Affordable Care Act to study these health disparities. What we’re seeing now, for example, in my hometown of Chicago, where the African American community is about 30% of the population but pushing up to 50%, 60%, 70% of the deaths. That’s just exposing health conditions that have existed for a very long time.

And so the Affordable Care Act, one of the provisions that is wonderful is that people are not going to have their premiums go up if they have preexisting conditions. We want to encourage people to go in and take advantage of the preventive care, so if that they have chronic conditions like hypertension, high blood pressure, obesity, they can get the treatment they need before they’re faced with a pandemic such as this and they don’t have the ability to fight back.

Silverstein: And New York’s primary election was cancelled. There’s a lot of people who are happy to see that happen and a lot of people who think that it’s affecting their rights. Where do you stand, and what does it mean for the rest of the election?

Jarrett: Well, one of the proposals that we’ve been making through the organisation, When We All Vote, that Michelle Obama launched, former first lady Michelle Obama launched a couple of years ago, designed to change our culture around voting. And when we saw those lines and the Wisconsin primary, which I’m sure sent shock waves through the folks here in New York, people were facing the horrible choice of looking out for their health or exercising that important right to vote. We shouldn’t have to choose.

And so what we are calling on is for Congress right now to enable the postal service to accommodate voting by mail. Every single state should have the ability to vote by mail. Our military have been voting my mail forever. States like Washington have had 100% vote by mail. We should also be expanding early vote. It is so important that people have options about when to vote. Not everybody can vote on a Tuesday during that window. But also if more people are voting by mail and doing early vote, you’d have fewer people showing up on Election Day. And then the final point, Sara, is that everyone should be able to register online. And so those are really the three proposals that we’re supporting right now that would enable us to not have to make that horrible choice.

Silverstein: And do you anticipate being able to accomplish those by the time the presidential election is supposed to happen? And do you expect the election to be postponed?

Jarrett: Well, what I’m hoping everybody in your audience will do is to call their congressman or senator and ask them to support this legislation. The postal service will need more resources in order to accommodate uptick in mail ballot. We need every secretary of state around the country to agree to do this as well. And so I think there is a lot of work that needs to take place between now and Election Day to ensure that this happens. It won’t happen unless the American people use their voices and speak up.

I hope the election is not postponed. I think if we take these steps, it shouldn’t have to be postponed, and so that’s really what we’re pushing for right now, and why we’re starting it early, so that we’re not looking up in September and we’re caught flat-footed again. We can be prepared if we do it right now.

Valerie Jarrett

Silverstein:And you’ve endorsed Biden, but you’ve made it very clear that you don’t think Michelle will be his running mate, the former first lady. Who do you think he should choose as VP candidate?

Jarrett: Well, one of the few decisions that the nominee gets all on his own or her own is a selection of their vice president, and I trust that Vice President Biden will find somebody who he thinks complements his skill sets. That’s what President Obama did in choosing Vice President Biden, somebody who shares his values, his vision for America, his desire to make sure that as we emerge from this pandemic we right many of the inequities that have been systemic within our country. And I am delighted that he said at the debate, the last debate, that it would be a woman, and I trust him to come up with the absolute right person. I know he has an embarrassment of riches from which to choose.

Silverstein: And your book, which was recently rereleased on paperback with a new subtitle, “When the Perfect Plan Crumbles, the Adventure Begins,” seems very apt for what we’re all dealing through now. Can you talk to us about some lessons from the book that are appropriate for what a lot of people are experiencing right now?

Jarrett: Yeah. So, Sara, I think all of us made plans, and when I was young I thought I had a perfect plan. I was going to go right to law school, practice law, fall in love, get married, have a baby, and live happily ever after. I was on that plan, and you know what? I begin my book when everything fell apart. The marriage fell apart. I didn’t enjoy my job. I did like my daughter – that was the only thing I can say I got right from the very beginning. And I said to myself, “Is she going to be proud of me if I continue on this current plan?” And so rather than clinging to the plan, I let it go and I swerved and I changed course. And I think all too often we’re too rigid, and we have to be flexible.

And I think that in a sense, for me, when I was young in terms of my career, the adventure really began when I was willing to swerve. I think in these kinds of circumstances we’re going to have to dig really deep and get creative. There are so many people who are suffering, they’re suffering loss, they’re recovering from the illness. If things are good, they’re worried about their jobs, their loved ones. I know a lot of my family’s in Chicago, my mum who’s 91 is in Chicago, and I can’t go see her. There’s a lot of stress in our lives, and I think part of the lesson of my book is learning to listen to that quiet voice inside of you that will give you strength and resilience and do the things that will help centre you and ground you for what we know is a journey called life.

Hopefully, it’s a long journey. So, pace yourself, and hopefully, when you look back, the chapters added up to a really meaningful whole where you cared about people, people cared about you, and you lead a purposeful life. And you used your voice to be a force for good. I was a slow starter. I was painfully shy, which I know you find hard to believe since I’ve barely shut up since we started. But I had to overcome all of that, and in public service is really where I found my voice. I learned to advocate for those who didn’t have a voice at the table.

Silverstein: And for a lot of people, the adventure part of it, it sounds exciting, but that’s also the hardest part. How do you find the strength to look at it as an adventure and an opportunity as opposed to a crumbling and a failing or a real hurdle?

Jarrett: Practice. I practiced. I will tell you what, my marriage crumbled and I was in my early 30s, I thought I was a failure because it didn’t work as opposed to the marriage just didn’t work. And I think it’s because my entire life, everything I’d worked really hard at, I’ve been able to accomplish. And I had the safety net of expectations and a lot of support and a loving family. I think ultimately we have to find that resilience within ourselves and we have to surround ourselves with people who are rooting for us. I can remember early on and having friends that, I call them nice nasty friends, not really rooting for me. And at this stage of my life, I have a great family and incredible friends, and they helped me find that resilience that we need for what’s really a marathon.

I think sometimes young people think because something doesn’t work out just the way you had planned that it’s all over. And no, it’s not. You just have to rebuild and reinvent yourself and listen to the most important voice and just keep going. When you look back, it makes sense.

But believe me, every trajectory I took in my life, I thought it didn’t make any sense at all. At the time I was like: “What am I doing here? I’m taking this risk. What if it doesn’t work out?” Well, you know what? Each one built on the one before.

Silverstein: Which was the risk that you took that you thought didn’t make the most sense at the time and paid off the most?

Jarrett: Oh, that’s easy. It was when I left a big law-firm practice and I joined local government in Chicago, and everybody around me thought I’d lost my mind. I had this great-paying job, beautiful office, great view of Lake Michigan in Chicago, and I walked into City Hall and everyone was like, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I feel this passion about service.” And it took a long time for the people who love me most to say, “OK, well maybe that was the right choice after all.”

You just have to have the ability to say, “OK, the path might be going this way for the path of least resistance but isn’t really a fulfilling path?” And for me, my fulfillment really came in service, and the lessons that I learned in local government, listening to our constituents … You can’t get away from them in local government. They had your phone number, they know where you live, they meet you at the grocery store. It’s 24/7, and that’s as it should be. Those eight years I spent full time and government and then another eight years part time taught me the lessons that really enabled me to serve at the federal level, where you’re not as in close proximity to the people you serve. And part of my job was to make sure those voices were represented in our decision-making process.

Silverstein: And for those of us who don’t have positions in public service and who are also struggling with the pandemic that’s going on, but are also looking for a way to impact other people’s lives. Do you have any insights on what people can do to make a difference?

Jarrett: You know what? There’s so much you can do. A simple thing I did today is I walked a couple of miles and I donated blood. They’re doing it in a way where there’s social distancing, and I felt very safe and welcoming. They were looking out for me. I was drenched, and they thought I was sweating, and I’m like, “No, no, I’m just wet from walking in the rain.” And I just felt like it’s something I can do. And so there are lots of ways that we can be of service.

Really what I’d like for people are right now to do is to go and talk to all their friends and get them to register to vote. That’s something you don’t need to go out and knock on doors for. You can go on Whenweallvote.org, our site, and I want to emphasise it as nonpartisan by design because we really want to reach particularly young people who have the most to lose, and who are underrepresented the most in voting, to appreciate the fact that our government is important.

This pandemic is showing that good government is so important to our daily lives. And if you want to be well-represented, then you’ve got to engage in the process. And so that’s something I would ask people to do because that’s going to help serve us for the long run.

And this isn’t about one election or one candidate. It’s important who’s on the school board, it’s important who’s on the city council, who’s on the state legislature, who our prosecutors are, who’s in Congress. All of these offices are important. And so we have an education campaign, a registration campaign and then a get out the vote campaign.

Silverstein: And before I let you go, how worried are you about the turnout in this upcoming election?

Jarrett: I’m very worried. I’m always worried. Look, a hundred million eligible Americans didn’t vote in 2016; 43% of our country that was eligible didn’t vote. And we know that under these circumstances with the fear about health hovering over us, you have another layer of concern. There are examples around the country where historically people have tried to suppress the vote and now we have a pandemic potentially suppressing the vote.

So, we have a lot of headwinds coming at us, which is why we’ve started this so long ago to try to really build up some speed and some momentum. Each individual is going to have to make a decision that if you care about this democracy, part of the social contract is you’ve got to vote. Shunning government doesn’t make sense when it affects your life so dramatically.