President Obama is switching into 2012 campaign mode by burnishing his LGBT credentials, but his first interview on the issues was a decidedly mixed bag.
The 2012 election season has begun in earnest. President Barack Obama answered the first questions of his presidency from an LGBT media outlet and nudged open the door to switching his position on same-sex marriage, saying “attitudes evolve, including mine.”
Anyone who thinks that was simply a crass political stunt designed to get LGBT voters to the polls on Tuesday is a bit shortsighted. His words were a trial balloon for 2012 and the first indication that the White House is inching toward the conclusion that the president’s civil unions stance will not be viable, especially if he wants any hope of convincing the under-30 crowd that he’s even a shadow of the change they had believed in.
But even more stunning than the words themselves was the deafening silence from the national LGBT groups following the open door Obama handed to them. It was just one more missed opportunity in what has been a long and maddening succession of them ever since this president took office with Democratic majorities in Congress we may never witness again.
Huffington Post touted the interview on its banner with the massive headline “Meet the Bloggers” hanging over a picture of President Obama. Politico wrote specifically about the president’s marriage revelation. During the next day’s press briefing, MSNBC wondered when the president might complete his evolution and The Wall Street Journal asked whether we should “anticipate that at some point in the future, he is likely to feel comfortable with gay marriage being legal.”
Apparently, the president’s words were newsworthy enough for journalists to explore but a nonevent for our LGBT advocacy organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Fascinating.
I usually refrain from saying much about how the national LGBT groups acquit themselves because I generally find finger-pointing only serves as a counterproductive distraction from the most critical tasks at hand. But quite frankly, watching some of them at the federal level over the past two years has been a lesson in political malpractice that has left me ill and speechless more times than I care to count.
While the president’s marriage pronouncements were encouraging, many of his other comments regarding LGBT issues were puzzling, to say the least. After AmericaBlog’s Joe Sudbay — the gay representative at the interview — expressed disappointment at the pace of progress on equality advances, Obama rebuffed the sentiment.
“I guess my attitude is that we have been as vocal, as supportive of the LGBT community as any president in history,” he said, pointing to his record number of gay appointments, work at the federal agency level such as hospital visitation, and movement on “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“I’ll be honest with you,” Obama said, “I don’t think that the disillusionment is justified.”
It’s difficult to know exactly where to start and stop with this statement, but at its core, it’s completely devoid of empathy and certainly borders on arrogant. We’ve had a string of signs that this president just doesn’t have any LGBT advisers close enough to him to serve as a reality check for the mood of the community — this statement is just one more glaring example.
Running a point-counterpoint on his catechism of accomplishments seems pointless at the moment. But here’s the scorecard on the big ticket items he campaigned on. In front of mainstream audiences, the president ran on repeal of DADT and, in front of LGBT audiences, he lumped in Defense of Marriage Act repeal and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. He has been “vocal” enough on DADT with his mention in the State of the Union address to essentially put those wheels in motion, but he has not come anywhere close to employing the full might of his bully pulpit on ENDA or DOMA.
If the president succeeds in repealing DADT, it will be the single greatest equality advancement for the movement to date. Short of that, his record will be diaphanous. Touting his credentials as the most supportive president in history on LGBT issues is tantamount to taking credit for being the beneficiary of a natural progression of the culture. Attitudes evolve, as Obama said.
The other curious part of President Obama’s commentary concerned “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“I said directly to the Log Cabin Republican who was here yesterday, I said, that can’t be that hard. Get me those votes,” Obama said, referring to Log Cabin executive director R. Clarke Cooper, who had attended a DADT strategy session at the White House the day before.
The suggestion that the president is partially pinning his hopes of passing repeal during the lame-duck session on the Log Cabin Republicans hustling GOP votes is preposterous. Nothing against Log Cabin — they certainly have a role to play and I personally witnessed their presence on the Hill leading up to the vote. But no one in the country has greater power to wrangle votes than the president of the United States. In fact, when it came time for the big vote last month, Log Cabin members were on the Hill working the GOP while all the president’s men were MIA. Vice President Biden made one call to Sen. Susan Collins on the day of the vote — that hardly amounts to a formidable effort.
This White House is fond of saying, “Go get us the votes and we’ll do it,” but equality advancements require leadership. Can you imagine President Lyndon Johnson relying on Log Cabin to eke out the votes for repeal? Certainly, President Obama has a more substantial plan than that, but his emphasis on the Log Cabin part of the solution during the interview was baffling.
The week did, however, hold one promising development on the DADT front — reports that a majority of the troops surveyed held few if any objections to serving alongside openly gay soldiers. The battle over the finer points of this survey and the greater Pentagon study certainly isn’t over — those who oppose repeal are surely circling the wagons even as you read. But this is one of the very few, if not only, instances when information that figures positively for repeal was leaked in advance of more deleterious tidbits. The aberration suggests that pro-repeal officials are beginning to win the battle within the Pentagon. Who knows, perhaps it has occurred to them that they will have far more control over when and how the policy change takes place if it’s swept away through legislative action rather than through the swift and decisive stroke of a judge’s pen.
On a completely unrelated note, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Nancy Pelosi could very possibly lose her post as speaker of the House if the Democrats get pummeled next Tuesday. She may not have scheduled all the LGBT votes the community would have hoped for, but Pelosi hammered home hate-crimes legislation early on and steamrolled “don’t ask, don’t tell” with 39 votes to spare. From a broader perspective, she near seamlessly pushed through Democrats’ agenda, stocking the Senate with more than 400 bills that never saw the light of day. Quite frankly, Speaker Pelosi delivered the change Obama promised more ably than the White House could either message or capitalize on those achievements.
If the House Democrats are ousted on election night, it will be a true irony that the single most effective legislator of the 111th Congress will be rewarded with a demotion.