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What Do You Do When the President is Just Not Into You: Netroots Nation and the Shifting Tide

I hadn’t planned on going to Netroots Nation until a few weeks ago.   Dan Choi, Bill McKibben and I had participated in a panel called “What to do when the President’s just not that into you” at the Powershift conference in April, which was oriented towards environmental activism.

In May, Dan decided it would be great to reprise it for Netroots Nation.  Not being a fan of summer travel (okay, well, travel period), I said “yes,” thinking it would never happen.  The submission and selection process for Netroots Nation panels had long been completed, and I really didn’t think there was a chance to get on the schedule.

Well, never count Dan Choi out.  Netroots had a last-minute panel cancellation and suddenly we were on — and Dan was off to Moscow.  Joan McCarter of Daily Kos agreed to moderate, and John Aravosis of Americablog signed on as a panelist.  Hoping to include some Dream Activists, I also reached out to Felipe Matos who walked 1500 miles through some really crazy shit with Gabe Pacheco and other Dream Activists to send a message to Washington. The Netroots Nation audience was truly awed by his passion and his uncompromising commitment to the cause of helping 2 million young people across the country achieve citizenship and have access to education.

It was a great panel that to my surprise really captured the tone of the conference.  The room was packed, and the audience was filled with people from White House Director of Progressive Media & Online Response Jesse Lee and a host of DNC/OFA staffers to members of the media and people who really just wanted an answer to the question posed by the panel.

If you had told me a year ago that a panel entitled “What to do when the President’s just not that into you” would be a love fest, and White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer would be greeted by booing and hissing, I would have said it was time to put down the crack pipe. But that is pretty much what happened.

Blind, tribalist loyalty to the President was in short supply.  The one memorable moment occurred during our panel, when Joan opened the discussion up to questions from the audience. A young man rushed to the front of the stage carrying rainbow-colored flyers that listed Obama’s LGBT accomplishments, and handed one to both Dan and John.  He said he was “with Organizing for America” and that in the near future the organization would be “making the 2012 constitutional amendment an issue.”

And then things got awkward:

NICK TSCHIDA (Obama volunteer): I can’t say I’m for marriage equality, but as a bisexual man, I would take a bullet for both of you.

CHOI: You say you’re not for marriage equality?

TSCHIDA: I can’t, no as a….

Dan took the flyer and ripped it, and tossed it in the air.

CHOI: Did you not understand? Here! I believe that I’m an equal citizen.

TSCHIDA: I understand that, but Obama hasn’t gone officially on record for it…

The video is a little fuzzy, so you can’t see my eyebrows shoot up into my forehead.  I  found it hard to believe that someone from OFA (albeit a volunteer) decided it was a good idea to approach two committed LGBT activists at their panel and tell them they couldn’t support marriage equality because Obama “hasn’t gone officially on record for it” — as if the President had to take a position before it was possible to form an opinion on the subject.  I realize the guy was young, but nobody forced him to go running up to the stage with the cameras rolling.

Dan stood up and tore the flyer pieces in two once again:

CHOI: Then, don’t tell me that I’m a bad person, go tell him that he should believe in my full equality and then report back.

To his credit, the kid shrugged his shoulders and tried to joke it off: “Civil unions?”

Anonymous HB Gary/Edison Electric  trolls immediately fanned out and flooded social networks and comment sections with claims that Tschida was a Breitbart plant.  But in fact he was with OFA, as many media outlets reported.

Dan Pfeiffer only made things worse the next day.  DailyKos’s Khali Joy Gray did a fine job of moderating the discussion with Pfieffer, and asked about a 1996 candidate survey in which Obama indicated he supported gay marriage.  Pfeiffer maintained that Obama didn’t actually fill out that survey himself.  I’m not sure it was possible to offer a worse answer to that question, but Tracy Baim, the editor who published the survey at the time, stands by the paper’s original reporting that Obama’s signature was very much attached to the questionnaire.

The entire event was very symptomatic of the problem that the White House will have engaging progressives in the next election and rallying them behind the President.  On the same day that Sam Stein of the Huffington Post reported that “Obama’s Relationship With Gay Rights Advocates Thaws In Time For 2012,” the Obama Justice Department was scheduling a date to put Dan Choi on trial for protesting in front of the White House — the first person since Alice Paul in 1917 to be brought up on federal charges for doing so, according to Choi’s attorney.

Coddling donors doesn’t equate with meaningful action, but the White House consistently conflates the two.

Dan Pfieffer was dispatched to scold the Daily Kos community for not being supportive enough of the President, and to let them know that if they don’t get in line, they’ll be responsible for putting a Republican in office.  It was a weak and petty message that did not even come close to addressing the concerns that all Americans share right now.  It isn’t only the Netroots Nation attendees who have serious questions about the economy, jobs, civil liberties, social security, medicare, taxes, accountability and a host of other critical issues that the President seems to have reversed himself on since the 2008 campaign.

The anonymous trolls who flood social media channels with blind obedience to the White House were almost nowhere to be found at Netroots Nation 2011, while the people who were willing to match their faces to their names don’t seem willing to accept “better than Sarah Palin” as a sufficient response to the problems the country faces right now.  It might behoove some enterprising journalists to start asking why these mysterious people who spend all day long cheering the President and attacking his critics on social networking sites apparently don’t want to show their faces.


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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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