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Valerie Jarrett Talks Murdoch, Congress and What's Ahead for Obama

The senior White House advisor and long-time Obama friend gives Cynthia McFadden an up-close look at her White House workday.

Obama senior advisor and long-time friend Valerie Jarrett says it not true she has secret after-hours policy sessions with the president and first lady in the White House – but it is true she has had two enjoyable private dinners with Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch to talk about immigration.

“Can you believe that?” Jarrett asked. “If anyone had told me five and a half years ago I would be having dinner with Rupert Murdoch and … this is the second time we've had dinner.”

“But, you know what? He's committed to immigration reform.” Murdoch is one of many business leaders Jarrett actively works with on a variety of topics. Her portfolio at the White House includes being a conduit for a wide range of voices and opinions.

During a behind-the-scenes visit to the White House, Jarrett also told NBC News Senior Legal and Investigative Correspondent Cynthia McFadden that she is certain Michelle Obama will never run for office, and pretty sure she herself won’t either. Will Jarrett be endorsing Hillary Clinton for president? “Well, since she hasn’t even announced her candidacy, I think it’s premature to talk about it.”

As for the current president, she says that he is able to look beyond his short-term troubles in the polls to the long game.

"If we listened to the polls, he would've abandoned the race in the middle of the primary season.”

“We're going through some tough times now,” she conceded, acknowledging polls that show President Obama’s approval rating just above 40 percent. “But I'll tell you something that I learned very early in the first campaign, is that you just can't look at the daily polls. If we listened to the polls, he would've abandoned the race in the middle of the primary season.”

A friend of the Obamas since hiring Michelle Robinson to work at Chicago’s City Hall nearly 25 years ago and meeting Michelle’s then-fiance Barack Obama, Jarrett has now served as a senior advisor to the president for five-and-a-half years, outlasting four chiefs of staff.

On the June morning McFadden visited, Jarrett arrived at the White House just after dawn, as she does most days. Jarrett’s West Wing office is prime real estate. Prior occupants included both Karl Rove and Hillary Clinton.

One of her first tasks was checking press coverage of the White House Summit on Working Families, which had been held the day before. The gathering, which Jarrett headed, brought 1500 people from across the country to Washington as a rallying cry for paid parental leave and raising the minimum wage, both on the president’s second-term agenda. In Jarrett’s words, the Summit was “a movement, not a moment.”

A movement that began, she says, with the very first bill President Obama signed back in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Said Jarrett, “So we've been moving along this path for a very long time and I think what we've seen over the last five-and-a-half years is the private sector really begin to embrace this issue. Yesterday we had a chance to really highlight the best practices that are coming from the private sector to create that 21st century workplace that reflects the needs of the 21st century workforce. And so this should not be a partisan issue. This should be an issue that resonates with everybody in Congress because it certainly resonates with everybody around their kitchen tables."

Jarrett said she was pleased with the way the Summit “penetrated” – that is, caught the attention of the public and the media -- and said she was not put off by a somewhat snarky headline in the Washington Post.

“The Washington Post has to look at it through a political lens,” she said. “I'm more interested in what's being reported in Milwaukee and Seattle.”

After reviewing the Presidential Daily Brief, a top-secret daily briefing book produced for the chief executive and top advisors, it was off to the daily meeting with Obama's chief of staff Denis McDonough. By 8:45 she was huddling with her own senior staff back in her office. Three dozen people work for Jarrett, who is charged with over-seeing “public engagement and intergovernmental affairs” for the President.

Jarrett is deeply involved in working with local and state governments to promote the president’s programs. On this morning she got a report from the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, just concluded in Dallas, in which a staffer said there was great enthusiasm for the administration’s newly launched “My Brother’s Keeper” program, an initiative to address what the White House calls "persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color.” The program provides mentoring, support networks and work skills.

Looking back, Jarrett noted that one of the surprises about coming to Washington nearly six years ago was just how uncooperative Congress turned out to be.

“One miscalculation I made is I did not fully appreciate that the Republicans in Congress were going to just say no to everything,” she said. “Even when there are ideas that have traditionally been bipartisan. I really didn't fully anticipate that they would put their short-term political interests ahead of what was really good for the country.”

“It’s something that people are projecting onto their relationship - and onto a woman in power.”

Another part of Jarrett’s portfolio is the administration’s relationship with the business community. On this morning, a small group of Congress members brought a group of female business owners to the White House to discuss the pioneering ways they are making their workplaces more family friendly. Jarrett had intended just to welcome the group, but got so involved in the ideas being discussed she stayed nearly an hour, and called the session the “highlight of my day.”

At a quick lunch – outside the White House – Jarrett celebrated the Summit on Working Families with Tina Tchen, chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama. As the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, Tchen helped Jarrett plan and lead the Summit. Both women are Chicago lawyers and they’ve known each other nearly 30 years. Tchen says that suggesting Jarrett has undue influence with the president is “a misperception.”

“It’s something that people are projecting onto their relationship,” she asserted, “and, I’ll say it, onto a woman in power.”

Back in the West Wing after lunch, Jarrett had the first of this day’s meetings with the president. Later she laughs at media reports that she’s the most powerful woman in Washington - or that she’s “like Nancy Reagan was with President Reagan, but with more power.”

“I think people say all kinds of things about me. Those are some of the more flattering things,” said Jarrett, who called reports of her influence on Obama “hyperbole.”

She readily acknowledges her friendship with the first couple, however, and says, frankly, it’s an asset. “It's helpful to have people who work for you who also know you well and who share [your] perspective on why we're here and are a sounding board that you can trust,” said Jarrett. “I think that's good and I think that's healthy. But I think that people tend to take that and turn it into whatever they want it to be, which doesn't always bear resemblance to the truth.”

What is true, she says, is that despite the polls, the Congress and the ticking clock, there is still much that be can accomplished between now and January 2017. She says she propels herself out of bed every day because she knows she has been given an incredible opportunity, “and I don’t want to look back and say, ‘Why didn’t I do just a little bit more?’"

“As long as the president will have me, I will be here,” Jarrett said. She said she hopes her last act as his senior advisor will be “turning off the lights.”