President Obama bristles when he is the target of activist tactics he once used
By Peter Wallsten,
Barack Obama entered the stately Roosevelt Room and assumed his customary spot. Many of the nation’s leading immigration advocates had been waiting for him inside the windowless meeting space in the West Wing, eager to make their case. The president’s reserved chair was situated at the center of the long conference table, its back slightly elevated, a gentle reminder of power, but this did not seem to intimidate the activists on that March afternoon in 2010.
One after another, they spoke their minds, telling the president what he had done or not done that bothered them. They complained that a rising number of deportations on his watch were “terrorizing” Hispanic neighborhoods and tearing apart good families. They warned that he was losing credibility with a crucial constituency that had put its faith in him.
Obama’s body stiffened, according to several witnesses, and he started to argue with them. If they wanted meaningful change, he said, they should focus their pressure on the Republicans in Congress who opposed reform, not on him. He was with them but could only do so much. “I am not a king,” he said.
That night a group of Hispanic lawmakers came to the White House. They, too, were coming to talk about immigration, and after hearing about the earlier confrontation, the lawmakers were bracing for another argument. Instead, they encountered a president in a reflective mood, almost contrite.
“Look who I am,” Obama said, as several guests recalled. He reminded them that as a black man he had experienced discrimination in his life and understood “what it feels like for people to not be treated fairly.”
The variations in his demeanor that day and night illuminate the competing impulses of sympathy and frustration that have characterized Obama’s relationship with liberal activist groups since he entered the White House. Their uneasy alliance has gone through three distinct phases, moving from great expectations to tense confrontations to pragmatic coexistence as the next election approaches. With Hispanics and gays — key liberal constituencies that moved early in Obama’s tenure to openly challenge the Democratic president — the tension has mostly been about means more than ends, when more than what. The president’s history, his temperament and style, his idealism vs. his ambition — all have come into play as he has responded to pressure from these two essential segments of his base.
Obama is a former activist who once mentored the poor and disenfranchised on Chicago’s South Side in the tradition of Saul Alinsky, a community organizer known for his willingness to challenge authority. Yet even as a young organizer, Obama was not always comfortable staging direct actions against politicians and soon chose instead to become a politician himself. Now, as president, he often expresses resentment at being challenged by would-be supporters, occasionally lashing out at advocates when they employ the old organizing methods against him.
Much of Obama’s tenure has been marked by difficulty with his Republican opposition, but his interactions with advocates for gays and Hispanics show the friction in his dealings with friends and supporters, as well.
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.”
For advocates and the president, several months in 2010 were at the heart of the tale.
Push for an insiders’ strategy
Two weeks before Obama was scheduled to deliver his 2010 State of the Union address, a few dozen gay rights advocates gathered at the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading advocacy organization closely aligned with the White House. The group that showed up that day — activists, lobbyists and aides to large donors — had come to talk strategy. It was now a year into the Obama presidency, and nobody knew how strongly the president was pushing to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning openly gay service members.
The meeting quickly turned into a debate over how the gay rights movement should relate to the president and whether it was time to ramp up public pressure.
Several pushed for an insiders’ strategy. Power lobbyist Steve Elmendorf said the community was engaged in a “constructive dialogue” with the White House, according to meeting notes taken by a participant. Moreover, Elmendorf added, Obama and his team “don’t like when they’re attacked.” Several activists in the room spoke up to argue. How could it be, at this stage, a year after the inauguration and after months of discussions between advocates and the White House, that the gay rights community did not know the plan for repeal?
Some gay activists had already been raising concerns about their standing with Obama, who at that point opposed same-sex marriage and had invited evangelical pastor Rick Warren, a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.
Paul Yandura, an adviser to gay Democratic donor Jonathan Lewis, remarked that a “truly constructive dialogue” on repealing the military ban would have yielded a specific plan of action.
Yandura and Lewis had already begun charting their own more aggressive course — connecting with activists outside Washington to organize a training conference for later that month at the Highlander Research and Education Center, a social action institute in the mountains of east Tennessee where Rosa Parks learned civil disobedience tactics.
They called it the Radical Minds Retreat, and for five days several dozen activists read documents and role-played real-life situations from the civil rights movement in discussing how to best push the nation’s first black president to take action. One of the goals, as described in the agenda distributed to participants, was to develop “messages, actions and strategies for nonviolent escalation to demand full legal and social equality.”
Activists aligned with Lewis and Yandura went on from that retreat to form the group GetEqual, which spent much of the rest of the year organizing demonstrations that directly challenged Obama, his top aides and Democratic leaders in Congress.
So by the time Obama stood in the Capitol in late January 2010 for his State of the Union speech, some factions of the gay rights movement were already preparing to pressure him — even though he used that grand stage to make a solid-sounding commitment.
“This year,” he said, “I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”
On immigration, the president was not specific. “We should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system — to secure our borders and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation,” Obama said. Where he had promised Hispanics during the campaign that he would tackle the issue of immigration reform in his first year, Obama was now beginning his second year with a statement that struck advocates as disappointingly limp.
Immigration advocates watching the speech instantly noticed the contrast: They got vague boilerplate language while the gays got a firm timeline.
They responded by planning a mass demonstration on the Mall for late March. Obama’s aides, aware of the rally, seemed concerned and invited the advocates to sit down with him. That was the progression of events that led to the meeting in the Roosevelt Room.
New issues cropping up
Before the immigration advocates arrived at the White House on the afternoon of March 11, 2010, they held a meeting to map out their strategy. It was crucial, they agreed, to get Obama’s attention. At the time, the advocates knew the president and most of Washington were consumed with the health-care fight unfolding in Congress.
The White House, meanwhile, was still dealing with the sputtering economy, and the next big legislative showdown would be over Wall Street regulation. The rise of the tea party — and polling numbers showing a growing anti-Washington wave threatening the Democratic majorities in Congress — added to a desperate sense among activists that their window of opportunity was closing fast.
The meeting had been scheduled to talk about potential paths to passing a comprehensive immigration bill. Activists felt that Obama had not thrown himself fully into the fight. Now, new, even more emotional issues were cropping up, among them a steady rise in the number of deportations. The deportees included students, parents and others who had been in the United States long enough to develop deep roots here.
The advocates decided that Deepak Bhargava, head of the nonprofit Center for Community Change, would lead off the meeting with a sharp critique of the president’s leadership.
Bhargava, 43, an Indian American who came to the United States as a child, had spent much of 2008 registering minority voters. The rise of a fellow community organizer, a black man, delivered to office on the shoulders of a new ethnic coalition, “hit me on so many levels,” Bhargava would later recall.
So it was an uncomfortable moment when Bhargava looked in Obama’s eyes and told him that he was presiding over a “moral catastrophe” in immigrant communities. He asked Obama to use executive powers to stop many deportations, said it was time to “lean in” on revamping the country’s immigration system and listed a number of Republican senators he should lobby.
The president grew visibly frustrated as each successive advocate spoke. He said that the advocates, too, should be pressing Republican lawmakers, that he sympathized with their concerns but that he did not have the legal authority to stop deportations.
Tensions mounted when Obama argued that his administration’s policy was to focus on deporting criminals and others deemed to be security threats.
“No, Mr. President, that’s not what’s happening,” interjected Angelica Salas, the head of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. She was seated directly across the table from Obama and leaned toward him as she spoke, her hands trembling and her voice rising. “You’re deporting heads of households, mothers and fathers.” She said that “young people are sitting in detention centers when they should be sitting in the best universities in the country,” according to meeting participants.
Obama looked taken aback by the direct confrontation from Salas and then turned to aides seated against the wall, according to several participants. The aides affirmed that, yes, criminals were the priority.
Turning back to Salas, Obama asked: “What do you want me to do, not enforce the law?” He explained that he could not just ignore laws he didn’t like.
The president spoke sternly. Several participants described him as defensive. One person said that, at times, Obama was “pissy.”
When he turned to Joshua Hoyt, a Chicago-based immigrant rights activist Obama had known since the 1980s, the president seemed especially annoyed. Six days earlier, Hoyt had called out Obama in an op-ed for having a “tin ear” on Latino issues.
“Josh and I have been mainly communicating through op-eds in The Washington Post,” Obama said dryly, according to several participants. Hoyt replied that he was happy Obama had read the piece.
The advocates agreed that legislation was complicated. They said they had, and would, find ways to communicate with Republican lawmakers. But they were unconvinced by Obama that he could not stem deportations, and on that point, the two sides debated for some time.
Since 2009, the Obama administration had been removing immigrants at a rate of nearly 400,000 a year — more than under any previous president. Administration officials have said the rise in removals resulted from sharp spending increases on enforcement passed by Congress before Obama took office, while the advocates argued that the administration could take many steps on its own to limit the threat to otherwise law-abiding people.
Obama tried at times to break the tension, to demonstrate his sympathy for the cause of immigration. He did so in personal terms, alluding to the story of his African aunt, who at that time was living in Boston illegally and facing deportation.
Later, according to several meeting participants, he mentioned his middle name of Hussein — a frequent target for conservatives trying to portray Obama as something other than American — as a lighthearted reminder to the group that he faces unique political challenges in dealing with culturally polarizing issues.
At the meeting that night with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Obama’s emotional reference to his race surprised attendees and suggested the earlier argument had left an impression. A year earlier, caucus members had lectured Obama on how immigration was the civil rights issue of their time and how Hispanic voters would judge his presidency on how he handled it. Now it was heartening for some members to hear Obama acknowledge cultural parallels.
One attendee touched by the president’s remarks was Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a former taxi driver of Puerto Rican descent who had devoted himself almost full time to promoting more liberal immigration laws.
“For the first time, he shared some of his feelings with us,” Gutierrez said.
But the lawmakers still remained frustrated that Obama, in their view, seemed unwilling to put any real political capital on the line.
Ten days after the encounter, Gutierrez delivered a fiery address at the rally on the Mall calling for presidential action.
White House aides had arranged with rally organizers for Obama to address the crowd with a taped message. “I’ve always pledged to be your partner as we work to fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said, “and that’s a commitment that I reaffirm today.”
If his remarks were cause for optimism, it was short-lived. The following month, on a late-afternoon flight home, the president signaled to reporters aboard Air Force One that pursuing an immigration bill was not on the agenda for that year.
“We’ve gone through a very tough year, and I’ve been working Congress pretty hard,” he said. “So I know there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue.”
To Bhargava, Gutierrez and others who had met with Obama weeks earlier, the president’s remarks were devastating. They knew there were disagreements, but for the first time, they believed that the White House was essentially giving up on major change before the congressional elections.
They planned another demonstration for May 1, this time directly in front of the White House. It coincided with the arrival of four young immigrants who had walked from Miami to build support for the Dream Act, the stalled legislation to legalize many veterans, students and other young people who had been brought to the United States illegally as children. Among the activists’ demands was that Obama ensure that people eligible for the Dream Act would not be deported.
Hundreds waved American flags and chanted, “Obama escucha, estamos en la lucha” (“Obama, listen, we’re in the fight”).Bhargava, Gutierrez and other activists were led off in handcuffs for refusing to leave.
Activists girded for another argument with the president in late June, when officials invited them back, yet again, for a sit-down.
The session began on a tense note when one of the participants, a young Colombian immigrant named Juan Rodriguez, refused to shake Obama’s hand as the president tried to greet him. Rodriguez, 20 at the time, had been invited to represent the “dreamers” who had walked from Miami but could not gain access to the White House because of their legal status. Rodriguez had recently gained legal residency.
“I’m sorry,” Rodriguez recalled telling Obama. He then started to tell the president that this breach of etiquette was a protest on behalf of fellow immigrants who could not attend. Obama, visibly annoyed, cut him off. “Okay, I get it. You’re not going to shake my hand,” the president said, quickly moving on to greet the next advocate.
The exchange set the tone for another testy meeting. Like the gathering in March, this one began with tension between Obama and Bhargava — only this time it was the president doing the talking. He said Bhargava had recently written unfairly critical blog posts, and he again told the group to redirect its attention to the Republicans.
Gustavo Torres, head of the activist group CASA of Maryland, came to Bhargava’s defense. “Mr. President, it’s not just Deepak,” Torres recalled saying. “All of us are very disappointed.”
The next day, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus returned for another adversarial meeting. Obama began by lecturing Gutierrez for constantly attacking him in public, according to people familiar with the meeting. At that point, they said, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)told the president that Hispanics were finding it “hard to reconcile” his stated support for helping immigrants and his refusal to exercise his executive powers.
Two days later, in a July 1 speech at American University, Obama called for a bipartisan solution to the country’s immigration problems — but the speech offered no new policy initiatives or promises of executive action.
Still, Obama hosted a series of Oval Office meetings over the next five months with Gutierrez, Menendez and other Hispanic lawmakers to consider what, if anything, could be done — perhaps in the lame-duck session after the November midterm elections.
The Senate had tried but failed in September to pass the Dream Act, a move viewed widely as a boost for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid’s efforts to mobilize Nevada’s large Hispanic electorate for his reelection.
Advocates were eager to try again. By November, Obama and the lawmakers agreed to push for another vote.
Frustrated by activists’ claims
In late October 2010, White House aides hosted a dozen or so leading gay rights activists to reassure them that Obama remained fully engaged on their issues, too.
Obama was not scheduled to meet with the group but did so after Jarrett told him that some of the activists “don’t feel your heart is in the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ” The senior adviser said she told the president that she was “trying to convince them that you’re there.”
Obama had heard the complaints before. He and his aides were frustrated by the claims from some activists that they weren’t doing enough.
It was the president’s personal involvement, supporters thought, that had pushed the Pentagon brass into supporting repeal. Part of that effort was pressing the military to conduct internal reviews examining how lifting the ban would affect soldiers and the institutions involved.
Advocates had been asking Obama for immediate action, aides recalled, but he thought that attaining military support for congressional action was necessary to help gay men and lesbians gain full acceptance — even if that process would take longer than advocates wanted.
White House officials had also remained in close touch with their allies at the Human Rights Campaign and other insider groups working to lobby Congress. Some advocates close to the White House saw an irony — that Obama was doing what the protesters wanted but could not advertise it because of the delicate nature of his relationship with the military.
To the organizers of GetEqual, only well-publicized pressure on Obama would ensure his enthusiastic support.
Back in March, at the same time Obama was tussling with immigration advocates, GetEqual had arranged for Army 1st Lt. Dan Choi, who was facing discharge under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, to lead an unorthodox White House rally. Using handcuffs that Yandura had purchased at a sex shop near Dupont Circle, Choi and a fellow gay soldier became media sensations when they linked themselves to the White House gate.
A few weeks after that, about a half-dozen GetEqual hecklers riled Obama by repeatedly interrupting a speech he was delivering at a Los Angeles fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
“Don’t know exactly why you’ve got to holler, because we already hear you, all right?” Obama said, trying to quiet the shouts from the crowd. CNN was airing the remarks live. Obama showed a rare public flash of anger when a woman could be heard yelling, “It’s time for equality for all Americans.” In a sarcastic tone, he said to the demonstrator, “I’m sorry, do you want to come up here?”
Obama later vented to one of his senior aides, Jim Messina, while leaving the event in his limousine. He didn’t see why these activists were angry with him when he was so clearly supportive of their cause, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
By October, when Jarrett was telling Obama in the Oval Office that many of the advocates were getting nervous, he was eager to offer assurances.
“Bring them in,” Obama told Jarrett.
The group was escorted to the Roosevelt Room. For about a half-hour, activists listened as Obama walked through the details of his strategy for winning repeal that year in the lame-duck session.
“He made it as clear as he could that not only did he want to get it done, but that he intended to get it done,” Jarrett recalled.
The next day, Obama faced more skepticism on gay rights in a roundtable conversation with liberal bloggers at the White House. He pushed back when Joe Sudbay, a gay blogger, told him there was a “certain amount of disillusionment and disappointment in our community right now.”
“I guess my attitude is that we have been as vocal, as supportive of the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community as any president in history,” Obama said, according to a transcript posted later by Sudbay. Obama went on to list his achievements, such as appointments of openly gay people to senior posts and his action requiring hospitals to allow visits by same-sex partners. On “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he described his approach as “systematic and methodical.”
“And so, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that the disillusionment is justified,” Obama concluded.
Sudbay was struck by what seemed to be the president’s conflicting feelings. Even as he was dismissive of gay activists’ complaints, Obama appeared moved by the parallels between the black civil rights movement and today’s gay rights struggles.
“One of my favorite pieces of literature is ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ and Dr. King had to battle people counseling patience and time,” Obama told Sudbay, referring to the document penned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 to answer sympathizers who worried that civil disobedience might be an unwise course. “And he rightly said that time is neutral. And things don’t automatically get better unless people push to try to get things better. So I don’t begrudge the LGBT community pushing, but the flip side of it is that this notion somehow that this administration has been a source of disappointment to the LGBT community, as opposed to a stalwart ally of the LGBT community, I think is wrong.”
From cheers to tears
Obama spent much of Saturday morning, Dec. 18, 2010, in the Oval Office. He was calling lawmakers, mostly Democrats, to press for support of his priorities in the lame-duck session.
The president’s party had just experienced what he termed a “shellacking” in the midterms, but as the final session of the Democratic-led Congress came to a climax he stood on the verge of a clear legislative triumph. He struck a tax deal with Republicans. He secured approval for an arms-control treaty with Russia. And most important to his gay supporters, Democrats and a handful of Republicans voted to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The Dream Act was a glaring exception. Obama had worked the phones, urging support from lawmakers worried that backing the bill would make them vulnerable to attacks of being soft on illegal immigration. But the measure fell five votes short of the 60 needed to avoid a Senate filibuster.
It was a bitter disappointment for advocates, who had always seen the Dream Act as the “motherhood and apple pie” piece of the immigration wars, the politically easy measure to help innocent kids.
As the votes came in that Saturday, the scene in an upstairs office in the West Wing captured the day’s emotions. Aides who had been working on “don’t ask, don’t tell” were cheering and high-fiving. Those who had been working for passage of the Dream Act were in tears.
As Jarrett later recalled, the president walked upstairs to hug and console the tearful aides. He pointed to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, years in the making, as inspiration for those working on immigration issues.
“This is a journey, and we will get there,” Obama told the staffers, according to aides.
At the emotional bill signing days later, White House officials seemed to offer a subtle acknowledgment that outside pressure played a part in pushing the legislation ahead. Among the invited guests at the ceremony were Choi, the gay Army lieutenant who had cuffed himself to the fence, along with Yandura and Lewis, two of the architects of the protests that had followed Obama throughout the year.
‘What can we do to work together?’
On the Tuesday after the Senate failed to pass the Dream Act, Obama hosted a few Hispanic lawmakers, including Gutierrez and Menendez, in the Oval Office.
The president conceded that the new Republican-led House would never pass the immigration legislation they all wanted.
So the president told the lawmakers that they should all “put our thinking caps on,” according to two people familiar with the meeting. “What can we do to work together?” the president asked.
Gutierrez was hopeful. For the first time, he thought that Obama seemed open to asserting his executive powers. He and Menendez laid out a series of specific executive actions Obama could take, including one to help those eligible for the Dream Act.
Obama, too, seemed upbeat. As the meeting broke up, before Gutierrez had a chance to slip his suit jacket back on, Obama engulfed the congressman in a bear hug.
A photo that sits on Gutierrez’s desk shows the president’s arms draped around the congressman’s shoulders. Gutierrez, grinning widely and holding his jacket in his left hand, is shown with his right arm around Obama’s shoulder and neck.
In a news conference the next day before he left for his Hawaiian holiday, Obama told reporters that the failure of the Dream Act was “maybe my biggest disappointment” of the session.
He and his aides signaled privately to lawmakers in the months that followed that some middle-ground resolution was in the works. Eventually, the administration would enact a policy of “prosecutorial discretion,” calling on immigration officials to focus on deporting serious criminals, repeat border-crossers and others considered security threats rather than students, veterans or seniors.
The policy, which would later include a case-by-case review of deportation cases, seemed like a potential victory for immigrant advocates. But so far, they have found the results to be disappointing. Only a fraction of cases would be closed under the review, and advocates remain wary.
For Gutierrez, the frustration reflected a profound evolution in emotions. He had felt great hope back in 2006, when he and then-Sen. Obama first discussed the prospects of a presidential campaign and what winning the White House might mean for immigrants. The hope turned to anticipation on Election Day, then frustration through months of protest and tense encounters, and then hopefulness again with the Oval Office embrace.
But seven months after the hug, with few signs of the progress that he and others had pushed for, Gutierrez was feeling desperate. So on a steaming July day, the congressman returned to the White House — as a protester once more. He was arrested with other advocates as they sat beneath a banner reading, “One Million Deportations Under President Obama.”