By Amie Parnes - 05/22/14 06:00 AM EDT
The genesis of President Obama’s oddball appearance on “Between Two Ferns” started with a meeting between Valerie Jarrett and Zach Galifianakis.
During a September trip to Los Angeles, the unlikely pair hatched a plan for Galifianakis to interview Obama on his bizarre online talk-show parody.
But Jarrett’s work wasn’t done. Far from it.
She still had to make the case to senior White House staff and President Obama that it was a good idea for the commander in chief to appear alongside a comedian who proceeded to joke about Obama’s birth certificate and the healthcare law, which Galifianakis called “that thing that doesn’t work.”
The idea drew criticism from some who felt that it damaged the office of the president.
But White House officials say the video, which drew 21 million views, helped drive traffic to HealthCare.gov in droves, a 40 percent increase in more than a day, specifically.
“She made it happen 100 percent,” Mike Farah, the president of production for Funny or Die, said in an interview with The Hill.
By the beginning of April, ObamaCare’s enrollment had topped 8 million, more than what the White House had predicted.
Jarrett’s pitch that the president should be interviewed by an unpredictable comedian amid a backdrop of shrubbery highlights her standing as the most influential figure in the president’s inner circle and the central guardian of his narrative — and most importantly, with two and a half years left, his legacy.
Jarrett wasn’t worried about criticism that the appearance was beneath the presidency. Her focus was on making sure the White House did everything it could to make the healthcare law, Obama’s signature achievement, a success.
She pushed the idea internally at the White House with senior staff. And when she pitched it to the president, Obama didn’t hesitate to go along with his top adviser’s recommendation, according to a White House official familiar with the discussion.
That’s little surprise, since Jarrett is close to both Obamas.
She spends evenings and weekends with the first couple. Just last month, she joined the two for a swanky Friday night dinner in New York and then sat beside them — along with her boyfriend Ahmad Rashad — as they took in “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway.
She’s outlasted every other member of Obama’s inner circle, and White House aides say she’ll be the last one out the door on Inauguration Day in 2017.
“She’s obviously been very effective in what she’s been doing, and she has a long-standing relationship with the president and first lady,” said Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff and a close friend to Jarrett. “She understands them ... and they have a relationship that is warm, and it makes it easier to stay.”
But beyond her role as first friend, the former lawyer and businesswoman has shown an ability to convince the president on policy and politics.
As director of public engagement at the White House, Jarrett is helping Obama move on immigration, holding a string of meetings with various stakeholders. When the president held a roundtable in Florida to advance women’s economic opportunities last month, it was Jarrett’s idea.
The Chicago native has been “instrumental in both identifying areas for executive actions and for execution,” Jeff Zients, the director of the National Economic Council said in an interview with The Hill.
But she can also be a lightning rod to those outside and inside Obama’s inner circle.
She famously scrapped with former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, and clearly made her opinion known about former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, who had a short-lived tenure in the West Wing.
“No one really wants to cross her,” one former administration official said. “Or the president will hear about it.”
Current and former White House aides say that, while she wields more influence than most inside the building, “it causes problems when she steps into something she knows nothing about,” one former aide said.
“If she’s persuading policy, and she’s out of her lane, that can be problematic.”
Members of Congress, their aides, and business and faith-based leaders all say Jarrett is responsive to their requests for meetings, but some question whether they’re ultimately being heard.
Last year, Jarrett organized a meeting at the White House with a group of industry CEOs and government officials.
For an hour and 15 minutes, she listened to concerns in the Roosevelt Room, answered questions and even used the opportunity before a captive audience to tell the group how it could push Obama’s healthcare message.
But, as the attendee noted, “the end result was that there was a greater appreciation for our concerns but no demonstrable change in policy.”
Others have come away with a different view.
“I’ve worked with her along with others in the business community on advancing important causes such as immigration reform, reinventing education, creating jobs and protecting privacy,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an email. “In each case, I’ve found her to have an incredible capacity to deal with complex subjects.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge of Obama’s second term has been healthcare, and
White House aides point to “Two Ferns” as one of their bigger accomplishments in driving enrollment numbers.
“I give them a lot of credit for letting us do that,” Farah, the Funny or Die executive, said. “It paid off for everyone.”