Netroots Nation: Pfeifferdammerung

MINNEAPOLIS – There are snappy official buttons from Netroots Nation all over the conference. Some have jokes about Republicans: “Ask me about Paul Revere.” One has a joke at the White House’s expense: “Professional Left.” It’s been a nice apertif for the one big engagement between activists here and the Obama administration: An interview with White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer.

The narrative was pre-written, as Pfeiffer pointed out when he took the stage. “When my interview here was announced,” he said, “the Huffington Post wrote that the White House was going into the lion’s den.” Almost true: He was going onto the turf of Angry Mouse, a featured Daily Kos blogger who adopted Tim Russert’s style of repeating simple questions and seeing how Pfeiffer squirmed away from them.

“Will we see a jobs bill?” she asked.

“If there was something we could do to wave a magic wand and fix this, we would do that,” said Pfeiffer. The White House, he said, was “investing in infrastructure.”

So what do they plan to do for jobs?

“Passing an infrastructure bill including the infrastructure bank,” said Pfeiffer. “We have a pending fight on unemployment benefits. We want to get the economy moving on a large scale.”

Someone at my table started chuckling. “Where do people learn to talk like this?” he asked.

“With a 9 percent unemployment rate, why wouldn’t we have a jobs bill?” asked Angry Mouse. That got big applause.

“You can expect the president to continue to propose additional initiatives,” said Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer talked with the language, circles, and care he provides to reporters – something that doesn’t play as well in a crowded room of activists. Three times, he returned to the “magic wand” line to explain the sticky procedural reasons that the White House hadn’t done more.

“It’s not just that we have obstructionists in Congress,” he said, “it’s that we have an economy that’s been in crisis for a long, long time.”

Pfeiffer was only booed (lightly) once. That was when he was asked why Obama had filled out a survey in 1996 stating his approval of gay marriage, but had moved right on the issue as president.

“First of all,” said Pfeiffer, “someone else filled out that questionnaire.”

Technically true, but for this crowd, outrageous. “Are you saying it was a fake questionnaire?”

Pfeiffer escaped that thicket with some verbiage about what Obama had done for gay rights – a good reminder of how much cover the DADT gives him. After all, his main goal was to take some hits without generating new, bad storylines for the White House or an impression that it was bowing to liberals. He succeed. Asked why the White House wouldn’t argue for a tax hike of a few hundred bucks instead of entitlement cuts, Pfeiffer went populist.

“This does not have to be an either/or choice,” he said. “There are families who are barely getting by, and a couple hundred dollars a year are going to matter.”