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Will Activist Base Really Sit on Sidelines in 2012?

MINNEAPOLIS — The frustration in the room was palpable.

And for so many of the more than 2,200 liberal activists and bloggers gathered here for Netroots Nation, it was very familiar.

Sure, they will vote for President Barack Obama over any Republican on Nov. 6, 2012. But, they say, they don’t have to be happy about it.

“The frustration is not that things are too slow, it’s that he doesn’t use his brilliance to fight for what he promised on the campaign,” said Martin Berg, who runs WheresOurMoney.org. “He’s just not fighting.”

Berg talked with Roll Call after a panel hosted by Obama campaign activists, who directly asked for boots on the ground to help in 2012.

“We do have a lot of work to do on enthusiasm,” Jeremy Bird, national field director for Obama for America, said to the overflow room of attendees as they groused about Democratic voters’ lack of enthusiasm. “We can’t wait until next year. We’ve got to talk to people now.”

Bird outlined the field program he said would get volunteers and voters engaged early with the Obama campaign in all 50 states. He said that in 2008, even with a “very flawed opponent” and the “wind at our back,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was still able to win 47 percent of the vote.

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz made a similar plea during her brief address. “We’re going to need your help, folks. We can’t do it without you,” the Florida Congresswoman said.

But at panel after panel, activists repeatedly said they aren’t sure to what extent they will get involved in the 2012 election. They said they will keep their wallets closed and will instead look to local races with candidates who stand up for their values.

There were similar gripes in 2008 when Netroots Nation was held in Austin and Obama had just made a move that attendees didn’t like on a warrantless wiretapping bill. Activists said then that Obama should be more liberal, just as they’ve said every year.

But this week in Minneapolis, a labor union organizer from Virginia said union members are “furious” with Obama because of how he’s handled the economy and for his support of trade deals she felt are unfair to U.S. workers.

“There’s no question: Nobody is going to be making individual donations,” the labor organizer told Roll Call.

A recurring complaint from Netroots Nation attendees was Obama’s appointment of General Electric Co. CEO Jeffrey Immelt to lead his jobs council. Others complained that the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, remains open or that Obama didn’t forcefully pursue the DREAM Act immigration measure when he had a super majority in Congress.

When the convention kicked off Thursday, one panel’s title said it all: “What to do when the president is just not that into you.”

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer served as Obama’s surrogate Friday, fielding tough questions about the administration’s agenda and deflecting accusations that the president doesn’t care about liberals.

But Pfeiffer’s talk with Kaili Joy Gray, who blogs at DailyKos as “Angry Mouse,” did not go over well. Activists said they left more irritated than they’d been to begin with, and several said they felt as if he wasn’t listening to their concerns.

“Washington is a hard and frustrating place,” Pfeiffer said. “He’s as frustrated as you are. ... The pace of change exceeded everyone’s patience, including our own.”

An example Pfeiffer gave was that it was not easy for Obama to sign an extension of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy but it was the only compromise that wouldn’t hurt the middle class.

Pfeiffer expressed gratitude that the activists had helped elect Obama and several times hearkened back to the events that excited voters during the 2008 campaign: Obama’s announcement speech in Springfield, Ill., his victory speech after the Iowa caucuses and when he became the first African-American to become a major party nominee at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

“Without a lot of people in this room, Barack Obama would not be president of the United States,” he said.

Gray, reading questions from the audience and from Twitter, said the warm feelings weren’t enough when Obama promised big change.

“A lot of people feel really disappointed,” she said. “We’re all Democrats. ... I’m not going to knock on doors, I’m not going to donate money. Do you need us?”

Pfeiffer nodded: “Absolutely.”

Pfeiffer’s bottom line was that the GOP candidates for president have “a very different vision for this country” than the netroots, and he asked the group to help ensure “the Republican vision for this country does not become reality.”

Pfeiffer defended Obama’s accomplishments, citing health care reform, a fair pay act and the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning openly gay service members.

“If someone else is president, all the other things I talked about are all going to go away,” he said. “There is much that has been accomplished in the first two and a half years. There is more to be done.”

But Gray kept at it, asking a question that earned cheers: “What difference does it make if we re-elect him?”

The one time Obama has addressed this crowd was in 2007, when Netroots Nation was held in his hometown of Chicago. It was his 46th birthday, and the crowd regaled Obama twice with song. But he wasn’t their top choice then, either, and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) stole the show and topped early polls of the netroots community.

Gray attempted to get Pfeiffer to promise that Obama would visit the next Netroots Nation gathering in summer 2012.

No dice.

The president’s schedule is “a bit challenging,” Pfeiffer said, adding he’d talk to Obama about it.

Back at the Obama campaign panel, Berg challenged Bird to explain the president’s fundraising strategy.

Berg said that one day after learning Obama had met with donors at the White House, he got an email from the president asking for $5 donations. In the email,  Obama promised he was running “a different kind of campaign, not taking money from fat cats.”

“Which is it?” Berg asked.

Bird said the Obama campaign has a “multifaceted” plan for raising enough money to compete, especially because he doesn’t take money from political action committees. When Bird said Obama also invites small-dollar donors to talk with him, several in the room snickered (the campaign is doing a promotion now where small-dollar donors can win a dinner with Obama, a successful tactic they used to raise millions in 2008).

Later, Berg told Roll Call he was unsatisfied by Bird’s answer. “Maybe they think no one is paying attention so no one will mind,” he said.

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