Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

Obama’s Marriage Equality Opportunity

I often hear from members of the gay community who complain that President Obama hasn’t done enough since his election to further the cause of gay rights and gay equality.  They hold the view that President Obama could implement the necessary policy changes concerning gay rights much more rapidly if only he were more determined and dedicated to the cause.  This view, it seems to me, is extremely short-sighted at best and just plain wrong at worst.  I would argue that in less than one full term as president, Mr. Obama has achieved unparalleled success in advancing gay rights and tearing down institutional barriers to gay equality.

The Obama Administration displayed exceptional leadership in prodding Congress to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” – the archaic Clinton-era policy which barred openly gay men and women from serving in the military.  Aside from being unjust, impractical and, well, silly, “don’t ask, don’t tell” proved to be counter-productive as many of the gay soldiers who were discharged were fluent in arabic or had other valuable talents that our military so desperately needs.  Simply put, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” just made sense and was the right thing to do but wasn’t particularly bold from a political standpoint. 

Much more surprising, however, was the decision by the Obama Administration to withdraw its legal support for the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.  This irrefutably bold decision by President Obama was much more of a risk politically; and as such, President Obama should be commended for his courage in making the decision.

With respect to the issue of gay marriage – the litmus test for most gay activists – President Obama does come down on the wrong side of the issue.  Since being a candidate for Senate in 2004, Obama has consistently taken the politically expedient position of supporting civil unions while defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.  I must admit, however, I believe that Obama holds this position more as a matter of political practicality than with genuine conviction.  In the New York Times last weekend, Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote a piece in which she described President Obama’s thinking regarding gay marriage as “evolving.”  According to Stolberg, the president was moved by the impassioned testimony of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argued eloquently that the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was above all else a moral issue.  Stolberg suggests that some Democratic strategists close to the president believe that Obama may officially change his position to support marriage equality.  If so, the question now is when.

The current backdrop for the gay marriage debate is the dramatic proceedings taking place in Albany as the New York Senate decides whether it will bring a decisive vote regarding gay marriage to the floor (the State Assembly has already passed the measure and Governor Cuomo has said he will sign the bill).  Coincidentally, President Obama will be in Manhattan this week to headline a “Gala with the Gay Community” event which will bring in $1,250 a plate.  It seems to me that the gala presents the president with the perfect opportunity to declare his support for the marriage equality bill in the New York Legislature specifically, and incidentally, declare his support for marriage equality more generally.

I appreciate that the president’s views with respect to the marriage issue are “evolving,” but evolving strikes me as a bad euphemism for “I’m testing the political waters and I’ll get back to you when the water is warm.”  I would contend that playing the “evolving” card isn’t good enough anymore when you’re going to take $1,250 a plate from gay supporters while marriage equality hangs in the balance in the New York Senate. 

I voted for then candidate Obama in 2008 based on my belief that he would be a president intent on fighting for significant, even historic, changes even if and when those changes weren’t politically expedient or popular.  In many ways the president has passed that test, most notably with the enactment of the contentious, yet historic, healthcare reform bill.  The healthcare fight was difficult and divisive but it was the right thing to do; and although I have been critical of the president for not fighting harder and for more, I still believe he will be vindicated by history for it.  Likewise, it’s time for the president to put himself on the right side of history again regarding the gay marriage debate.  I challenge President Obama to be the transformative president I voted for and I know he aspires to be.  Take the lead on this issue, Mr. President, and you will be rewarded by posterity.

Just as an aside, isn’t it somewhat ironic that marriage equality has been so difficult to achieve in a place like New York?  I know, I know…outside of New York City the state of New York is considerably rural, conservative and votes like Alabama.  But it still feels weird that New York – that bastion of tolerance – is a follower on the marriage equality issue and not a leader.  Sad state of affairs, indeed.

June 20, 2011 Posted by | Marriage Equality, Obama, Politics | , , | Leave a comment