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Just Words

I’m not going to comment in too much detail about the sentiments allegedly conveyed to John Harwood, who reported that the White House regards the lukewarm reaction to Obama among many in the LGBT community as part of the “Internet left fringe”. But suffice it to say that…

1) John Harwood’s characterization of the White House’s attitude should not necessarily be mistaken for the genuine article. I’ve been in the “hot seat” before — having done a few dozen 5-minute TV interviews over the past 18 months, as well as another dozen or so conferences and panels where I’m expected to make some extended-form remarks. It’s very easy to let yourself get carried away and to want to say something punchy and quotable. It’s also very easy to enmesh one’s own opinions with those of “sources”, particularly if those sources are anonymous. Finally, it’s easy to overgeneralize, taking one or two conversations you’ve had and characterizing them as reflective of the attitude of an entire organization.

2) It’s very hard to believe that the White House has a problem with the medium — i.e. blogs and the Internet. Obama probably would not have won the Democratic primary without the presence of the Internet. The White House has generally been quite good about treating “new media” outlets like the Huffington Post on a level playing field with “old media” outlets, although I think the whole distinction is increasingly meaningless, and the more important distinction may be between reporting outlets and advocacy outlets. (Full disclosure: we’ve generally had pretty good luck at obtaining a White House credential on the couple of occasions that we’ve asked for one.)

3) What the White House does seem to be periodically annoyed with and perpetually dismissive of, however, is criticism of its activities from the left, whether it comes from new media or more traditional outlets. The electoral calculation that Harwood outlines — that the White House figures that those on the left have no other place to go — indeed seems consistent with the behavior of an administration that has failed to take tangible action on most of their more ostensibly left-of-center promises, particularly on issues like gay rights. Is the White House’s calculation right, by the way? Perhaps, but they should keep in mind that votes are just one of three resources that the progressive community has as its disposal; the other two — time and money — are arguably more valuable.

4) I personally don’t agree with certain of the activist community’s critiques of Obama. To a lesser extent, I also disagree with certain of their policy positions, and certain of their points of emphasis. Keep in mind that FiveThirtyEight is a blog written by a liberal (me!), but I don’t really consider it a “liberal blog”, in the sense that our mission is to do analysis rather than organization or advocacy.

Where I can “endorse” the frustration of many on the left, however, is on issues where popular sentiment seems to be on their side, such as on the public option or gays-in-the-military. Now, popular sentiment isn’t everything — it may only go so far when competing against powerful institutions like the health care lobby. The status quo is usually the status quo for a reason, in other words. But what’s been irking is the White House’s lack of backbone when confronting these institutions. Take an issue like the military’s ban on avowed gay and lesbian soldiers, for example, which polls suggest is unpopular by about a 3:2 margin. The received wisdom on this issue is that, although overturning the ban might be nominally popular, the “nays” are liable to be far more vocal than the “ayes”.

And you know what? The received wisdom might well be right. But I don’t think those who elected Obama expected him to give deference to the received wisdom; on the contary, it was his rhetoric of transformation that distinguished him from Hillary Clinton. Since roughly the time of the Jeremiah Wright incident, however, virtually every time the Obama campaign/administration has had a choice between a bold action and a cautious one, it has taken the more cautious path.

5) If one were to take Harwood’s remarks at face value, they represent something of a strawman. I do think there are some on the left that have a rather naive conception of politics, and there probably a few others who have a tendency to engage in contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake. But I haven’t heard too many people on the left say — let’s set aside those “complicated and difficult” issues like health care until gay people can get married in Nebraska. A straw poll conducted at Netroots Nation found that only 6 percent of the attendees regarded gay rights as one of their top two priorities as compared with 60 percent for health care; contrast that with a similar question at the Values Voters’ summit, where 41 percent identified abortion as the most important issue facing the country.

At the same time, those on the left are looking for more than just lip service. We may have reached the point where reaffirming promises that aren’t backed up by action does the White House more harm than good. Sometimes — and this is something I’m often guilty of — it’s better not to take someone’s call than to tell them you’ll call back in a week and fail to do so.

OK, so that was quite a bit of detail, it turns out. And I’m not sure what the takeaway is, exactly. Suffice it to say that I think everyone should be thinking more in terms of actions than words. On the one hand, the whole “Internet left fringe” remarks are a nonstory — a bright, shiny, and possibly misreported object on a slow news day. On the other hand, Obama’s promises are becoming a nonstory too, except to the extent he’s failing to make an active effort to fulfill them.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.