Valerie Jarrett, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, is coming to former Vice President Joe Biden’s defense on controversies he’s faced in his 2020 Democratic presidential campaign so far ― from how long it took him to reverse his position on the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment to how he’s responded to allegations of inappropriate touching.
HuffPost spoke to Jarrett on Friday before a fundraiser in San Francisco for civil rights group Equal Rights Advocates, where Jarrett spoke about the need for better policies to support working women, including equal pay, paid family leave and affordable child care.
Asked what she thought of Biden reversing his decades-old position against repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for abortion procedures, Jarrett said: “I think it’s great that he did.”
“Look, I disagreed with him about the Hyde Amendment,” said Jarrett, who was chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls under Obama. “But I also saw the enormous value that he offered as vice president to President Obama.”
“I think it’s good that he responded and was willing to change positions,” she added. “I think sometimes candidates get backed into a corner and think they can’t change, but they should. We should all grow.”
Jarrett then brought up the allegations earlier this year from multiple women who said Biden had inappropriately touched or kissed them and invaded their personal space during public events.
“I think [Biden] said, in response to some of the women who felt he was invading their personal space, he said, ‘It’s a new day, and I get that and I need to change.’ I think that’s what we would want from people,” Jarrett said.
“Sometimes in our political world, we don’t give people the space that they need to change,” she added. “I think that’s refreshing to see a candidate who is willing to say, ‘I had it wrong, and now this is my position.’”
Here’s more from Jarrett on what she’s looking for in a 2020 presidential candidate, on Joe Biden’s recent controversies and other issues.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s the most diverse field of candidates in history ― yet two white men have been leading in most early polls: Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt). Some people have challenged certain candidates’ “electability,” specifically women and people of color contenders. What do you say to that?
Nonsense. I think absolutely our country is richly diverse, and if everybody votes... then I think our country is more than ready to elect a woman, to elect a person of color, somebody that reflects the values of the majority of our country.
And it is very early.… A lot can happen between now and the time the Democratic primary is over, so let’s see how it goes.
Among some of the leading candidates so far, some people have noticed different ways they are responding to young girls on the campaign trail ― with female candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) telling girls they should run for office, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) advising them on public speaking. Meanwhile, Biden has been called out for saying things to young girls about their appearance ― to a 13-year-old girl’s brothers, “You’ve got one job, keep the guys away from your sister,” and to a 10-year-old girl, “I bet you’re as bright as you are good-looking.” What do you think of the significance of the way 2020 candidates speak to young girls?
I think some of those comments [Biden made] might be generational. I think in the end, what everybody has to ask themselves is: Is this somebody who shares my values, will fight for my country and make the lives of my family members better?
We can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good ― and we have to recognize that it is unlikely for anybody to have everything in complete sync with us, and you have to look at what the alternatives are and who do you think is best going to represent you. That’s what matters most.
Since Biden was called out on allegations of uncomfortable or inappropriate touching and acknowledged them, he has joked about them at events ― for instance, after a woman whispered in his ear at a campaign event, he said, “I want the press to know, she pulled me close.” Some have said that wasn’t the response they were looking for, given the seriousness of sexual harassment. What do you think of his response?
I think he was making fun of himself, not the issue. I say that because I saw how hard he worked with us to end college sexual assault on campuses. He was a champion of [the initiative aiming to end sexual assault] “It’s On Us.” He wrote the Violence Against Women Act. I think there is no one that could dispute that he has been a champion for women.
And when you hear him speak about the issue of sexual harassment, he is extraordinarily passionate. And I would hasten to add, no one has accused him of sexual harassment.
So, yeah, I think he was not in any way making fun of the issue, I think he was basically making fun of himself. And I think people aren’t always going to get it right. They aren’t. We all are human. So let’s not hold ourselves to a standard that is impossible for anyone to reach.
I am particularly concerned, as a Democrat, that we as Democrats have to keep our eye on the prize, and that is winning the general election. And what I don’t want to see happen is for us to beat each other up so much in the primary that whoever emerges as the nominee goes into the general election in a weakened state.
That doesn’t mean that we, the public, shouldn’t be challenging them for their ideas. But I don’t want to see them doing that to each other. I can figure out about the other guy or gal ― you tell me why I should believe in you.
In terms of what you’re considering in picking your 2020 candidate ― the field is wide ― you’ve said that ’Joe Biden would be a terrific president′ but that you’d support whoever is the nominee. Are there any candidates you’re particularly excited about?
I am excited about them all. I want to learn more about them all. I think part of what we should not do is fall in love before we get to know people. I can speak about Joe Biden because I worked with him every day for eight years, so I know what his enormous talent and contribution would be. But I’m really interested in learning about the other candidates…
There are issues where it would be very hard for me…. Let me put it this way: I could not vote for a person who is not pro-choice, I could not vote for a person who doesn’t think we need to do something about the epidemic of gun violence in our country. I think there are issues we hold so dear that it would be very difficult to support someone who did not go along with those.
In the general election, I’ll quote Vice President Joe Biden: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” And what we can’t afford to do is say, “I disagree with somebody on one issue and therefore I’m going to not vote.” You do have to choose, and for me, anybody in the Democratic field would be better than who we have.