Keeping the heat on President Obama is right, but let’s be realistic.
By Steve Charing
Towards the end of the Pride festival a young lady asked me, "When will Obama give us our rights?" as if he can wave a magic wand.
The next day in an uncharacteristically testy e-mail blast, Equality Maryland called on its supporters to "Give President Obama a Piece of Your Mind."
Recently a well-publicized partial boycott by LGBT donors of a Democratic National Committee fundraiser was in response to the Department of Justice’s over-the-top legal brief in defending the Defense of Marriage Act as well as inaction on securing other aspects of the LGBT agenda.
And the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network staged a demonstration in front of the White House to bemoan the lack of progress to repeal "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." Other protest marches in D.C. are planned for the fall.
What is going on here is a series of sporadic outbursts of frustration by many lgbt activists who resent the DOJ brief’s language and the slow pace in which campaign promises are being addressed.
LGBT activists are not the only ones turning the heat up on President Obama. He is also being criticized by Hispanics over the lack of comprehensive immigration reform. Environmentalists are on his case for not acting swiftly on global warming. Mr. Obama is hearing it from Republicans who oppose everything he is trying to do to lift the economy out of oblivion after they largely put it there.
He’s feeling pressure from the left, the right, the center, the media—just about everyone. He’s too timid on Iran. He’s driving the deficit up. His healthcare plan will doom the nation. He’s too pro-Israel. He’s too pro-Palestine. And North Korea has its sights set on Waikiki Beach. It seems like it’s time for him to get another dog.
This barrage of criticism and demands resembles a national dunking machine where Obama sits on the platform and the whole country is hurling balls at the metal circular plate.
From our perspective, President Obama clearly could have imposed a moratorium on DADT discharges while Congress sorts it out. And while I doubt he personally approved the language in the DOJ brief, he is still responsible for it, and it counters his pledge to repeal it through legislation. Are these outbursts, however, the right strategy?
The political realities
Of course, we want our agenda pushed through. We have a Democratic president with a huge Democratic majority in Congress—a window of opportunity that will not remain open forever despite the GOP’s foibles. But let’s get real.
President Obama has been in office just over 5 months out of 48 months in his first term. He potentially could reach 96 months if re-elected. In the short time since inauguration he has dealt with problems that would make any other person find an escape clause in the contract. His issues are too numerous to delineate here, but I’m sure there is no question as to the challenges facing our country. Imagine McCain and Palin grappling with these crises.
Mr. Obama didn’t win the election based on a gay agenda. He won on "change" and to put Democratic policies in place and eradicate the previous administration’s mistakes. He won on ending the war in Iraq and implementing some form of universal healthcare. And he won by being the anti-Bush.
He amassed 365 electoral votes. Even if Mr. Obama did not receive a single lgbt vote (and 30% of lgbt folks did not vote for him anyway), he still would have won. That’s right, as a bloc, and I use that term loosely, we didn’t win the election for him.
But that doesn’t mean he will renege on his campaign promises to us. The key components of our legislative agenda must originate in Congress. It is that body that needs to act on an all-inclusive ENDA, to repeal of DADT and to pass the Matthew Sheppard Act while we still have this large majority.
Alas, the repeal of DOMA appears to be years away from passage. It’s not politically realistic that sitting Representatives will want to enter their next electoral campaign with their opponents harping on the fact that the incumbent is opposed to preserving the institution of marriage.
But we need to start educating them and it would be easier to succeed on this front if we can achieve victories in the other important issues first. Once we achieve equality in one area, it is harder justify discrimination in other areas.
As much as the bully pulpit is useful for a popular president to help frame the agenda and kick-start the process, Mr. Obama will not sacrifice any political capital on these matters—yet—until HIS priorities are realized. Congress, however, must act now.
What needs to be done
Barney Frank, one of only three openly gay Representatives, believes that too much blame is being placed on President Obama and not enough significance is being attached to lobbying members of Congress. "It’s not that Obama doesn’t want to do it, but you need the votes," Frank said. "You can’t complain about the president until you’ve called your senator."
It doesn’t matter if President Obama is on our side if Congress won’t play ball. A grassroots effort is needed to persuade members of Congress—district by district.
Maintain the pressure on the president to make sure he understands we’re not going away. Let’s try to persuade him to deliver a speech along the lines of his race speech in Philadelphia and the recent speech in Cairo whereby he reached out to Muslims. Here he could denounce discrimination against lgbt people and to reiterate his desire to be a "fierce advocate for equality."
If we become extreme, any reactive moves on his part would be seen as appeasing a segment of his base. And keep in mind there is a significant number within his base who opposes transgender rights and marriage equality.
At the partially-boycotted DNC fundraiser Vice-President Joe Biden told the lgbt crowd, "I want to thank you for being a critical – critical – voice for keeping the nation focused on the unfinished business of true equality for all of our people; and I know, and this administration knows, that we have so much more to do. I promise you, I promise you, with your help we’ll get there in this administration."
The window is 48 or even 96 months, not 5. Remember that.