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Rahm Emanuel

If you’ve spent time in progressive circles these last nine months, you’ve certainly heard the “make me do it” story. The details bounce around, even the name of the president who allegedly said it (sometimes it’s Johnson, most often it’s Roosevelt), but the basic tale is this: the president is meeting in the Oval Office with an activist, a union president or a civil rights leader pushing a progressive cause. At the end of the meeting the president says, “OK, you’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.” The moral is a good one: change comes only through organized pressure on elected officials, even putative allies. But the fable, as Robert Borosage recently pointed out to me, is misleading. “The story is apocryphal. No president likes to be pressured. FDR loathed Huey Long and was often furious at the unions. Johnson was constantly trying to get King to call off the demonstrations–and his FBI bugged King. And yet King forced him to do what he would otherwise have been unable to do.”

The Obama White House is no different. From day one the administration has pursued a strategy of keeping its progressive allies on the White House playbook. In a weekly Tuesday night meeting called Common Purpose, representatives from dozens of well-established progressive groups–environmental organizations, labor unions, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Campaign and others–gather at the Capital Hilton to meet with White House reps. According to about a half-dozen people who attend, the meeting is generally run by deputy chief of staff Jim Messina and attended by political director Patrick Gaspard, as well as staff from Organizing for America. Often the White House will bring in policy experts to give briefings on legislation such as healthcare or financial reform. Once in a while David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel shows up. Although the meetings are strictly off the record (therefore, everyone who spoke with me insisted on anonymity), accounts of them occasionally leak to the press. In August several outlets reported Emanuel’s chastisement of some attendees for targeting Blue Dog Democrats wavering on reform. Anyone who went after Democrats, he reportedly said, was “fucking stupid.”

Mostly, though, the meetings are a chance for the White House to communicate its message. “They’re pretty useful,” one attendee told me, “simply by virtue of the fact that they lay out their schedule, and they review the messaging. If that’s all it was, it’s better than not knowing that shit. But there’s also the value of having all these progressive group players at the same time in the same place every week. It means that our networking is better.” During the day on Tuesday, before the evening meeting, three working groups–on healthcare, energy and financial reform–meet, usually with White House people there only for the beginning of the meeting. When faced with the kind of sustained, ferocious, implacable opposition campaign waged during the August recess, the meetings provide a useful platform for coordinating response and pushback. “Healthcare has been pretty good,” the same attendee told me. “The most obvious example was the town hall pushback, even though the MSM stopped covering it. From an organizing perspective, we did a fabulous job of turning people out and winning the ground game. It was really 180 degrees from beginning to end, and that had an impact on elected representatives. That’s the kind of thing I think wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in the habit of meeting every single week.”

But if there’s useful communication at the Tuesday meetings, it tends to go in one direction, attendees told me. “They want to make sure the advocates are informed, and there’s a lot of message control,” another regular said. “But there’s not a ton of dialogue back and forth and not a ton of true gritty political discussion.” Indeed, many of the groups, several people said, seem happy enough to be in the room and wary of openly confronting the administration in such an open forum. This means the White House doesn’t get to hear an unvarnished version of where the base is coming from. Several people say that dynamic prevented the White House from grasping how important the public option was to progressives, causing the administration to be caught off guard when people mobilized around it.

If access is the carrot the White House dangles in front of progressive groups, being frozen out of the meetings or, worse, having funding squeezed, is the stick. “There’s no question that the big donors are funding the groups that are helping to pass the president’s program,” said one attendee. “And they’re not particularly interested in funding groups that are challenging the president’s program.”

What seems to get the White House most riled up is when organizations target Democrats. That’s what invited Rahm’s reproach in August, and it continues to be the quickest way to get on the White House’s bad side. “When groups are hitting [Congress] members, they go and cry to the White House,” said another attendee. “Then the White House comes to the meeting and says, Don’t go after our allies.” (MoveOn, which has raised money for ads that target conservative Democrats, continues to attend meetings regularly.)

By wielding the threat of cutting off access, the White House, some feel, has co-opted most of Washington’s center-left. Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake, who has waged a spirited and relentless campaign to pressure Democrats to pledge to support only a heathcare bill with a public option, derisively refers to the Tuesday meetings as the “veal pen.”

It’s not surprising to find the White House in the incumbent-protection business, but its shielding of Blue Dogs from progressive groups’ pressuring has the perverse–and maddening–effect of imperiling the very policies (public option, a good cap-and-trade bill) it claims to want passed. And almost certainly, had progressives followed the White House lead on healthcare–focusing their fire on Republicans, defending the White House no matter what it put forward–the public option would have long since been killed off. A recent report in the Los Angeles Times that the president is working senators behind the scenes in an attempt to get the public option into the final bill seems to demonstrate the “make me do it” dynamic, much as the White House would be loath to admit that.