Friction over women’s role in Obama White House was intense

Posted Sept. 20, 2011, at 4:54 a.m.
Valerie Jarrett
AP
Valerie Jarrett

WASHINGTON — Friction over the role of women in the Obama White House grew so intense during the first two years of the president’s tenure that he was forced to take steps to reassure senior women on his staff that he valued their presence and input.

At a dinner in November 2009, several senior female aides complained directly to the president that men enjoyed greater access to him and often muscled them out of key policy discussions.

Those tensions prompted President Barack Obama to elevate more women into senior White House positions, recognize them more during staff meetings and increase the female presence in the upper ranks of the re-election campaign.

“There were some issues early on with women feeling as though they hadn’t figured out what their role was going to be on the senior team at the White House,” senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said in an interview Monday. “Most of the women hadn’t worked on the campaign, and so they didn’t have a personal relationship with the president.”

The women’s inclusion issue is featured prominently in a controversial new book to be released Tuesday, “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President,” by journalist Ron Suskind.

The book, based on more than 700 hours of interviews, including one with Obama, quotes a number of top officials describing a difficult work environment for women, due largely to the dominating roles of male officials such as economics adviser Lawrence H. Summers and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

The acknowledgment Monday by White House officials of the discontent among high-level female staffers came even as Obama aides tried to paint the Suskind book as inaccurate. The book was reported with cooperation from the White House, but now it could backfire, raising questions about Obama’s management style in the early stages of his administration. Suskind’s full media blitz begins Tuesday with appearances on NBC’s “Today” show, public radio’s “Fresh Air” and Comedy Central’s “Daily Show.”

One of the most striking quotes in the book came from former White House communications director Anita Dunn, who was quoted as saying that “this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. … Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace for women.””

Dunn says she was quoted out of context and told The Post on Friday that she told Suskind “point blank” that the White House was not a hostile work environment.

On Monday, Suskind allowed a Post reporter to review a recorded excerpt of the original interview, which took place over the telephone in April. In that conversation, Dunn is heard telling Suskind about a conversation she had with Jarrett.

“I remember once I told Valerie that, I said if it weren’t for the president, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace,” Dunn says. “Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace for women.”

Other episodes were relayed to Suskind by Christina Romer, former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, whose disputes with Summers have been widely reported, including in an earlier book on Obama’s White House by journalist Jonathan Alter.

Romer is quoted by Suskind saying, after being excluded by Summers at a meeting, “I felt like a piece of meat.”

On Friday, Romer offered a soft denial: “I can’t imagine that I ever said this.”

“I was told before I went to Washington that there has always been a lot of testosterone in the West Wing,” Romer said Friday. “What was different in the Obama administration is that there were so many women in important positions and, when problems arose, the president worked hard to fix them. I felt respected, included and useful to the team.”

In the book, Romer is portrayed as speaking up for herself. At one point, Suskind quotes her telling the president that if he empowers Emanuel and Summers, “You’re responsible for their actions.”

The complaints began circulating early in the administration.

In interviews at the time, female officials complained that top aides fueled the high-testosterone atmosphere. Footballs were occasionally thrown during staff meetings, by one account. Rough language abounded.

Some early efforts to elevate women foundered. The first White House communications director, Ellen Moran, departed quickly, after a rocky tenure. Others never quite fit in, or failed to be “in the jet stream” of the most important events of the day, one official said.

According to another official, the president initially discounted the complaints he heard that women, particularly on his economic team, were making. He saw the tough climate as just that — the intense atmosphere of a White House, fostered by competitive people at the top of their game.

But as tensions between Romer and Summers, in particular, escalated, Jarrett counseled Obama to give the issue its due.

“I said, ‘Look, I think that we have some issues with making people, particularly the new women, a part of the team and giving them a better sense of you and how you value their opinion,’ ” Jarrett said, recalling her conversation with the president.

Obama convened the dinner with women on staff. It took place in the White House residence on the night of Nov. 5, 2009 — just hours after a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, dominated the president’s attention.

An official White House photo depicts Obama, his hand on his chin, listening intently as the women sit with serious expressions.

“I really want you guys to talk to me about this openly because recently there has been this suggestion that there are some issues here,” Obama said, according to Suskind’s account of the session. “I’d like to know how you guys feel.”

The dinners have continued ever since, though not with Obama. The women agreed it was not necessary to meet with him again, officials said. Jarrett described Obama’s responses that night as “empowering.”

The complaints seemed to subside over the last year, as officials have made a greater effort to promote women and the tightknit inner circle has shifted to bring new advisers into the building.

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