When Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior adviser, addressed sometimes tough questions from bloggers and activists at the Netroots Nation conference in Pittsburgh, there was a consistent theme: If progressives are going to have much sway in the Obama administration, we are going to have to work for it.
Jarrett, who ranks as one of the most influential people in Obama’s inner circle, both professionally and personally, did say that the administration welcomes at least some level of challenge from the left. When asked if Obama accepts pressure from the left wing challenge similar to that encountered by President Roosevelt that helped propel much of the New Deal into law, Jarrett said, "I think he responds well to pressure, period." She went on to say he is "all for" the left questioning and prodding the administration to move reforms forward. "What he is looking for is ideas," she said. "We are open to suggestions, and if that is what you mean by pressure, bring it on."
Jarrett stressed during much of her appearance that much the pressure from the left needs to be directed in congressional districts, not at the White House. She made that clear in her response to a question that got sustained applause when it was posed by Baratunde of Jack and Jill Politics about resistance to Obama’s health care reform plan from conservative "Blue Dog" Democratic members of Congress. The questioner asked if Obama would tell the Blue Dogs that they should support the administration’s policies or else, if they want additional federal money in their districts, "they can ask Jim DeMint" (the arch-conservative Republican senator who vowed to make health care reform "Obama’s Waterloo.")
"I know there is a lot of frustration," Jarrett said, but "I am convinced that the president has it right" with his reluctance to play hardball, partisan politics. "He is not one to punish people," she said, but—hint, hint—we can, or at least put the kind of political pressure on members of Congress that Obama has for whatever reason been loathe to do on the health care debate. "Democracy works best when you guys get out there… when you call, when you visit your member of Congress… That’s what it takes…Organize … Put the pressure on them. That’s how it’s going to get done this year."
She later said that winning healtgh care reform "is a retail operation," a "block by block, person by person" effort, in which progressive organizations can play a vital role in educating the public about what health care reform means to them.
Jarrett also sought to clear up some ambiguity over how firmly the president still stood for a public health insurance option at the core of any health care reform bill. She dodged the question about whether Obama would veto a bill that does not have a public option, but she said that she asked Obama a pointed question in anticipation of the issue coming up at Netroots Nation. "The president wants the public option. He has made that clear. … I don’t want to fast-forward to the end of the process … but he makes the case for why he believes the public option is the right thing to do."
The final question was "What does the Obama administration want from the netroots?" Jarrett said, "We want to harness your energy. We share your frustration. We share your sense of urgency." On the critical issues affecting the rebuilding of the nation after decades of conservative misrule, "We want you to feel that you have a voice. .. Stay engaged. Push us. Have a constructive conversation with us. Don’t stop coming to the table."