The Barack Obama who spars with liberals in private seems far different from the man most Americans have come to know for his even-keeled, cerebral presence. He drops the formalities of his position and the familiar rhetoric of his speeches, revealing a president willing to speak personally and candidly to his allies, and also one who can be thin-skinned, irritable, even sarcastic and hectoring if his motives or tactics are questioned. He talks about his own ethnicity, his immigrant roots, his political high wire as a black president with a Muslim middle name — and then seems surprised when advocates who took deep inspiration from his election nevertheless question his commitment to their causes.
Of the two groups, gays have attained far more than immigration advocates from the Obama presidency, including a repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay service members that stands as a landmark achievement. Hispanic advocates got far less, helping to push the administration to make deportation policy adjustments that many advocates feel have been too little, too late — and represent a considerable downgrading of their initial hopes.
The contrasting experiences are important as Obama’s reelection campaign sees both groups as crucial to victory. Hispanics are a must-have voting bloc for Obama in almost every battleground his campaign aims to win. Gays have become a prime source of campaign money, with a recent Post review finding that about one in six of Obama’s top bundlers is gay.
What role did confrontation and pressure play in their gains, and what could other liberal groups learn from it? To both questions, the White House answer has been: not much at all. Obama has often lectured activists on what he considered their misguided gripes. Senior aides have called activists to reprimand them for disrespecting the president. White House officials have dismissed the pressure tactics as old-fashioned protest politics — irrelevant at best, counterproductive at worst.
“He’s been out there leading a demonstration and an advocate for those who were feeling left out, so he completely understands their strategy,” said Valerie Jarrett, a White House senior adviser. But “a more constructive strategy with him is: How do we get from A to Z, because I’m already there. You don’t have to convince me. And every hour [you’re protesting or complaining] is an hour you’re not working with the president and his team on what are the series of steps we should be taking collectively to move the ball forward.”
But it is that attitude from Obama — the I-know-better-than-you approach to the relationship — that has ruffled many advocates. And, despite White House claims to the contrary, advocates feel that Obama did respond to pressure and that their actions played a role in how much a seemingly standoffish president warmed to their agenda, and how soon.
“It became clear the president had gone from being an amazing campaigner to somebody governing from the ultimate bubble,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, who would attend multiple tense meetings with Obama in addition to organizing demonstrations and being arrested in one action at the White House gates. “The only way for us to break through that bubble was to confront the administration.”