Saturday, August 15, 2009

Netroots Nation Day Three

This year's Netroots Nation conference was a great event. I learned a lot, gained some new perspectives and got a chance to meet and talk with a number of pleasant and interesting people. The parties were fun, too!

And one event was really sobering.

Barack Obama's Senior Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement Valerie Jarrett was interviewed as the first event on the third and last day of Netroots Nation 2009 by comedian (!) Baratunde Thurston.

The next three paragraphs are slightly adapted versions of what I posted at the Netroots Nation Facebook page just after the presentation, assuming that the people immediately reading them would have seen the presentation. I was surprised to see that my grumpy comments about the Jarrett appearance were some of the few put up at the NN Facebook page. But that's okay, I don't mind their being visible there. Thurston's questions were total softballs. About the only challenging question she got was when someone shouted from the audience about why did we still have Blackwater contracts. Her answer was a complete dodge. She didn't engage his question directly at all. Either then or just after, a few people hissed at one of her answers. So, here was my immediate reaction.

That Valerie Jarrett presentation was just awful. The moderator was even worse. He spent the first half hour with absolute fluff questions. David Gregory on Meet the Press asks better questions, the moderator was that bad! When he said, "Hissing's just not cool", that was the absolute dumbest moment I saw at NN 09. That's normal crowd reaction from an engaged audience. What, did he expect us to show awed deference to the King's Regent? Any administration member who's too important to hear crowd disapproval should not go out and speak in public. Nobody was trying to hoot her down. If she can't take that kind of mild feedback, she should stay in her office where I'm sure there are plenty of sycophants who will always tell her how wonderful her every word is.

Hey, I know part of the game was to show the administration taking heat on C-SPAN from those scary liberal bloggers. But it's pitiful when such a senior Presidential adviser appears before Netroots Nation and the moderator spends the first half or so of her time asking her questions that would be embarrassingly easy softballs even in People magazine. And his policy questions were equally poor, i.e., gee, do you think green jobs are a good idea? That presentation by both the moderator and by Jarrett was downright insulting to the audience.

One last thing on the Valerie Jarrett fluff presentation. I'm sure Obama really is brilliant and absorbs a tremendous amount of information. But that's the same thing business publications say about every CEO when their stock is high and they haven't yet bankrupted and/or looted the company. It was pure fluff. Unless they are going to be asked substantive questions, there's really no point to have an administration official there to say we want you to support us but, golly, Obama's not going to pressure Blue Dogs trying to kill health care reform. But don't anyone hiss from the audience, geepers, that's not polite. That was a really sad event.

The comment that someone left there under the name "Netroots Nation" was telling:

I'm sorry you feel that way Bruce, but she didn't have to come here and answer questions and she covered quite a wide range of topics. You might not have liked the answers but she answered a lot of questions. And with respect to hissing, we at NN always treat our speakers with respect while they are on stage. This isn't some townhall where you just get to shout down people.
In words, just like the late Timmy Russert or today's David Gregory of Meet the Press, we need to avoid hard questions to preserve that precious "access".

It was plainly obvious that no one was trying to shout her down. Not even remotely. Baratunde Thurston's remark was an excess of prissiness. The contrast between that and the way Bill Clinton engaged the person who shouted out a question Thursday night was pretty dramatic. The questions asked of Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak Friday were notably better than the softballs he tossed to Valerie Jarrett.
And, by the way, I wasn't one of the people hissing. Though I did grumble to the people at the table with me a few times.

Jarrett really came off sounding like she didn't give a rip what people in that audience thought. I've been thinking and hoping that Obama was actually expecting the Democratic base to create pressure for reform and give him political cover for embracing such reforms. Jarrett's speech left me thinking instead that it's seriously possible that Obama and his administration really think the Democratic base is just a pain in the rear. It was sobering, I would say. I doubt anyone came out of hearing that speech feeling energized or encouraged by her presentation. She said a few times that we could really help spread the word on this or that. But it was more like she was issuing directives to a bunch of Party operatives rather than trying to convince us that Obama was really on the side of serious reform.

I want to be more specific on the issues she did address. Unfortunately, once we got passed the People magazine half, Thurston's questions were so broad that all she needed to do was recite her talking points. The idea was that he had accumulated questions submitted online. But this was a good illustration of how online participation can be transmuted into pseudo-participation by the filter (Thurston) cherry-picking the questions and presenting them in a vague or pandering manner.

Jarrett did talk about why health care was important and reiterated that Obama supports the public option. But when Thurston asked a question about whether Obama would pressure the Blue Dogs to support his plan, Jarrett said no, he wouldn't. In this case, Thurston presented the question as whether Obama would tell specific Blue Dogs they wouldn't get their favorite projects approved if they didn't support the Democratic position on health care reform. That made the question into a softball in that she could say no, Obama wouldn't do that. But Thurston didn't follow it up by asking what kind of pressure Obama would be bringing. The distinct impression Jarrett left was that Obama wouldn't be doing a blinking thing to try to get the Blue Dogs to support the public plan in health care reform.

One question was about releasing the suppressed torture photos that had been scheduled to be released in May. Jarrett repeated the Obama line which, sad to say, is the same as the Bush line, which is that it would endanger The Troops. It looks to me that the only thing suppressing those photos is intended to do is to prevent them from being used to to bring more domestic and international pressure to prosecute the torture perpetrators for known crimes. Do I even need to mention that Thurston didn't bother to ask her about prosecuting the torturers?

When Baratunde asked her if Obama responded to pressure from base activists like those represented at Netroots Nation, Jarrett responded that Obama responds to pressure from everywhere! That's what worries a lot of Democrats right now. That was one of the responses that communicated to me that she didn't much care what that particular group thought.

Baratunde did ask her about foreign policies. She told us that things in Darfur are bad. And that we care about hunger in Africa.

If the words "Iraq" or "Afghanistan" were uttered during that interview, I failed to catch them. Since Baratunde spent half the interview asked her dopey question about does it fell cool to be working in the White House and so on, that's pretty pitiful.

Sad to see. But important for people to understand. If we want the right kind of reforms to happen, the people who want those reforms will have to create the pressure to force it to happen. In the case of health care reform, it means supporting the Progressive Caucus in their stated determination to stand firm on the public option.

But Valerie Jarrett is supposedly Obama's most trusted advisor. And what is she most likely to tell him about the reaction to her presentation at the Netroots Nation convention? My guess would be that she'll tell him that the crowd was polite except for a few naughty people who dared hiss to indicate they disagreed with something she said. Otherwise, that didn't seem to be too worried about Iraq or Afghanistan or torture or that concerned about pressuring the Blue Dogs on health care reform. And that she told everyone the message she expected us to deliver to blog readers.

One last thing on Baratunde's prissy comment about the hissing. One of the things that the Tea Partiers have been saying is that the Democrats are trying to suppress their freedom of speech. It sure sounded to me like he was telling that convention of progressive bloggers who generally pride themselves on being critical thinkers and not being passively reverent like the Republicans generally were with Bush that it was shocking that they should dare express their disapproval to a senior member of the administration. I can only imagine what some veteran of the Freedom Rides or the antiwar protests of the 1960s and 1970s would say if they heard that.

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