Does Obama want activists to back off?

DOES OBAMA WANT ACTIVISTS TO BACK OFF?…. The Washington Post‘s Ceci Connolly reported over the weekend that the White House is aware of the pressure Democratic lawmakers are under from progressive organizations on health care, and the president is on the members’ side.

President Obama, strategizing yesterday with congressional leaders about health-care reform, complained that liberal advocacy groups ought to drop their attacks on Democratic lawmakers and devote their energy to promoting passage of comprehensive legislation.

In a pre-holiday call with half a dozen top House and Senate Democrats, Obama expressed his concern over advertisements and online campaigns targeting moderate Democrats, whom they criticize for not being fully devoted to “true” health-care reform.

“We shouldn’t be focusing resources on each other,” Obama opined in the call, according to three sources who participated in or listened to the conversation. “We ought to be focused on winning this debate.”

It seems more than likely that the president really did deliver this message to Democratic lawmakers, and I’m sure they appreciated it.

But I’m not sure if the story should be taken at face value. There are plenty of progressive organizations and institutions — MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, Service Employees International Union, Progressive Change Campaign Committee — pressuring Democratic members on meaningful reform. If the White House wanted the groups to pull back, the White House would ask the groups to pull back.

Instead, we’re hearing that lawmakers — who’d prefer not to receive the pressure — received supportive comments from a sympathetic president about those mean ol’ activist groups leaning on members to do the right thing. As Ezra Klein noted, that makes sense as a strategy: “It looks like Obama is semi-publicly defending the congressional Democrats whose votes he’ll eventually need. That, obviously, is what Obama needs to do. But that’s different from seriously putting the screws on, say, the unions attacking restive centrists.”

Right, and there’s very little evidence to suggest the White House is doing anything to pressure those applying the pressure, beyond saying nice things to members of Congress about how awful it must be to feel so much pressure.

Think about this way: freshman Sen. Kay Hagan (D) of North Carolina was against* a public option. MoveOn started leaning on her pretty aggressively, and soon after, Hagan reversed course. Maybe the timing was coincidental, maybe not.

But aside from reassuring support on a conference call, why would Obama seriously want MoveOn and its allies from helping him achieve his goal?

For what it’s worth, the progressive groups involved in the fight responded to the WaPo article by saying they’re not pulling back at all. I wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that a whole lot of staffers in the West Wing are delighted to hear it.

* Update/Correction: Hagan was reluctant to support a public plan, and expressed unambiguous support after the MoveOn ad, but she did not express outright opposition to the policy.