Obama’s body stiffened, according to several witnesses, and he started to argue with them. If they wanted meaningful change, he said, they should focus their pressure on the Republicans in Congress who opposed reform, not on him. He was with them but could only do so much. “I am not a king,” he said.
That night a group of Hispanic lawmakers came to the White House. They, too, were coming to talk about immigration, and after hearing about the earlier confrontation, the lawmakers were bracing for another argument. Instead, they encountered a president in a reflective mood, almost contrite.
“Look who I am,” Obama said, as several guests recalled. He reminded them that as a black man he had experienced discrimination in his life and understood “what it feels like for people to not be treated fairly.”
The variations in his demeanor that day and night illuminate the competing impulses of sympathy and frustration that have characterized Obama’s relationship with liberal activist groups since he entered the White House. Their uneasy alliance has gone through three distinct phases, moving from great expectations to tense confrontations to pragmatic coexistence as the next election approaches. With Hispanics and gays — key liberal constituencies that moved early in Obama’s tenure to openly challenge the Democratic president — the tension has mostly been about means more than ends, when more than what. The president’s history, his temperament and style, his idealism vs. his ambition — all have come into play as he has responded to pressure from these two essential segments of his base.
Obama is a former activist who once mentored the poor and disenfranchised on Chicago’s South Side in the tradition of Saul Alinsky, a community organizer known for his willingness to challenge authority. Yet even as a young organizer, Obama was not always comfortable staging direct actions against politicians and soon chose instead to become a politician himself. Now, as president, he often expresses resentment at being challenged by would-be supporters, occasionally lashing out at advocates when they employ the old organizing methods against him.
Much of Obama’s tenure has been marked by difficulty with his Republican opposition, but his interactions with advocates for gays and Hispanics show the friction in his dealings with friends and supporters, as well.