White House Communications Director Grilled At Netroots Nation

Dan Pfeiffer was subjected to some tough questioning by liberal online activists in Minneapolis

It's not every day that a member of the Obama administration has to submit to sustained, unrelenting, and, more importantly, public questioning, and when someone does, it's not hard to see why they avoid it. When White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer sat down with Daily Kos Associate Editor Kaili Joy Gray at Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of progressive activists, he got hammered.

The so-called "professional left" that former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs once maligned had a bone to pick with the president. They feel he's let them down on myriad issues, from gay marriage to passing immigration reform and climate change bills to closing Guantanamo Bay.

Take a heated exchange between Gray and Pfeiffer: she asked about whether the administration agrees that there has been a "war on women," as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., have suggested.

Yes, Pfeiffer said, Republicans have tried to undo a lot of our progress. He listed some examples of what the administration has done to protect women, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which passed Congress in 2009.

"You mentioned Lilly Ledbetter. Frankly we're a little tired of hearing about that one," Gray responded icily.

This was not atypical of the session, which lasted just over an hour. The exchange was just as heated when the subject of fully repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell came up, when Gray repeatedly asked Pfeiffer, "so when are you going to stop kicking people out of the military?" Each time, he gave her some version of "soon." And on many of the issues, Pfeiffer could do little more than say that the administration's hands were tied by an unfriendly Congress.

Still, after each attempt Pfeiffer made to defend the president, Gray would let out a long, dubious, "okayyyyy," the most obvious hint at the angst some liberals still feel toward the administration.

Later, Pfeiffer fielded a question about why the president doesn't support gay marriage, which he is reportedly "coming around to" with time. To defend the president's record, the communications director pointed to a list of other successes, including ensuring federal benefits for the spouses of federal workers in same-sex couples.

But for the ultimate defense of Obama to the LGBT community, he played the one trump card the White House has with the left, no matter how unhappy liberals are: "This is a huge, important issue to everyone and it is a big deal to them and I would not begrudge a single person who feels strongly about this for being upset with the president about it. But what I can promise you is that if someone else is president, all those other things are going to go away."

Perhaps it was this admission that led Gray to make one of her own later when asking about why progressives should support Obama in 2012. "They're all going to vote Democrat," she said of the group. But it came with a threat, one Obama cannot afford: low turnout and little desire to help knock on doors and help win over other unhappy voters.

"I promise you, [Obama] is the same person I remember from the campaign trail, someone that cares passionately about all of the progressive ideals that we talked about today, and he has fought for them the best he could to the bottom of his heart," Pfeiffer told the group as he wrapped up. "We need to continue to have a conversation with this group of people."

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Rebecca Kaplan is a staff writer (White House) for National Journal.

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