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CHICAGO — On a dark afternoon last week, the road to Jerusalem and Beijing momentarily veered through the office of a real estate company here.
Valerie Jarrett, the company’s chief executive, had signed her resignation letter an hour earlier, and now she was taking phone calls from potential top diplomatic appointees.
“You don’t need to thank me,” she said soothingly to a booming male voice on her cellphone. “I just wanted you to have a chance to make your case.”
If someone were to rank the long list of people who helped Barack and Michelle Obama get where they are today, Ms. Jarrett would be close to the top. Nearly two decades ago, Ms. Jarrett swept the young lawyers under her wing, introduced them to a wealthier and better-connected Chicago than their own, and eventually secured contacts and money essential to Mr. Obama’s long-shot Senate victory.
In the crush of his presidential campaign, Ms. Jarrett could have fallen by the wayside, as old mentors often do. But the opposite happened: Using her intimacy with the Obamas, two BlackBerrys and a cellphone, Ms. Jarrett, a real estate executive and civic leader with no national campaign experience, became an internal mediator and external diplomat who secured the trust of black leaders, forged peace with Clintonites and helped talk Mr. Obama through major decisions.
She “automatically understands your values and your vision,” Michelle Obama said in a telephone interview Friday, and is “somebody never afraid to tell you the truth.” Mrs. Obama added: “She knows the buttons, the soft spots, the history, the context.”
In January, Ms. Jarrett will go to the White House as a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, where she will be “one of the four or five people in the room with him when decisions get made,” as Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist close to Mr. Obama, put it. Ms. Jarrett, who is a co-chairwoman of Mr. Obama’s transition effort, will also serve as the White House contact for local and state officials across the nation and the point person for Mr. Obama’s effort to build a channel between his White House and ordinary Americans.
Less formally, she intends to help Mr. Obama preserve his essential self as he becomes president, even as she becomes the type of person who chats with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, mingles with Warren Buffett and is now sometimes greeted by strangers.
Washingtonians who assess the new White House crew sometimes cast Ms. Jarrett in parochial terms: she is the hometown buddy, they say, or the one who will hear out the concerns of black leaders. They note that presidential friends do not always fare well in the capital, that confidants from Arkansas and Texas have stumbled in the corridors of the West Wing.
Asked what was her biggest worry about the job, which is a major leap from anything she has undertaken before, Ms. Jarrett said she sometimes feared she did not know enough. “I will try to do my homework,” she said.
Ms. Jarrett, 52, has often been underestimated: perhaps because she is often the only black woman at the boardroom tables where she sits, or perhaps because she can seem girlish, with a pixie haircut, singsong voice and suits that earned her a recent profile in Vogue.
A protégée of Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, Ms. Jarrett served as his planning commissioner, ran a real estate company, the Habitat Company — whose management of public housing projects has come under scrutiny with Ms. Jarrett’s rise — and sits on too many boards to count. She is an expert in urban affairs, particularly housing and transportation, in an administration expected to lavish more money and attention on cities than its predecessors.
And she has something no other adviser in the Obama White House ever will: ties to the president-elect and future first lady that go deeper than a political alliance. Ms. Jarrett is only a few years older than the Obamas, but her relationship with them can seem almost maternal. “I can count on someone like Valerie to take my hand and say, You need to think about these three things,” Mrs. Obama said. “Like a mom, a big sister, I trust her implicitly.”
During big speeches, Ms. Jarrett watched Mr. Obama with a gaze of such intensity that he and their other friends laugh about it. “Barack always jokes, You can’t look Valerie in the eye, she’s going to make you cry,” said Martin Nesbitt, the treasurer of the campaign.