Obama’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” On Marriage
This commentary is the opinion of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin
May 7th, 2009
When Pres. Barack Obama tried to quell the outrage over selecting Saddleback pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the Inauguration, Obama promised to be a “fierce advocate of equality for gay and Lesbian Americans.” But lately he hasn’t been so fierce. Obama has backtracked on his promise to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and a recent re-vamping of the White House web site on Civil Rights has dropped all mention of repealing the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
The silence on DOMA is particularly strange because during the Democratic primaries he used his stance on DOMA’s full repeal to distinguish himself from then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. She wanted to retain the provisions permitting states to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. He campaigned on its full repeal.
But since then, Obama has clammed up altogether as a number of states have taken action to recognize same-sex marriage. Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, and possible New Hampshire — that’s quite a remarkable procession in just a few short weeks. It’s hard to imagine such a remarkable series of developments go unnoticed. But the phrase “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is quickly becoming an apt description for the White House’s approach to marriage:
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked during the press briefing Wednesday if President Obama had any reaction to same-sex marriage becoming legal in Maine.
… Jake Tapper (The Advocate): Does the President or the White House have a reaction to the Governor of Maine signing a same-sex marriage bill?
Robert Gibbs: No, I think the President’s position on same-sex marriages has been talked about and discussed.
Tapper: He opposes same-sex marriage.
Gibbs: He supports civil unions.
Tapper: Does that mean that he’s going to say or do anything against what the citizens of Maine —
Gibbs: Not that I’m aware of. I think the President believes this is an issue that’s best addressed by the states.
This silence over marriage is just one example of Obama’s timidity where LGBT civil rights are concerned. Richard Socarides, who served as a Clinton White House staffer from 1991 to 1993 and was openly gay at the time, wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend asking what happened to our “fierce defender”?
I understand that the president has his hands full saving the economy. But across a broad spectrum of issues — including women’s rights, stem cell research and relations with Cuba — the Obama administration has shown a willingness to exploit this change moment to bring about dramatic reform.
So why not on gay rights? Where is our New Deal?
It is the memory of 1993’s gays-in-the-military debacle (and a desire never to repeat it) that has both the president’s advisers and policy advocates holding back, waiting for some magical “right time” to move boldly.
This is a bad strategy. President Obama will never have more political capital than he has now, and there will never be a better political environment to capitalize on. People are distracted by the economy and war, and they are unlikely to get stirred up by the right-wing rhetoric that has doomed efforts in the past.
The White House did release a statement urging passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and that is not something that should go unnoticed. But Obama’s timidity on the more substantive gay issues is now getting noticed outside the gay press and blogosphere. The New York Times has noticed his absence today — and brought out a key inconsistency on his stance toward marriage:
Anything substantive he might say on same-sex marriage — after the Iowa ruling, the White House put out a statement saying the president “respects the decision” — would be endlessly parsed. If Mr. Obama were to embrace same-sex marriage, he would be seen as reversing a campaign position and alienating some moderate and religious voters he has courted.
…Mr. Obama supports a legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that said states need not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Opponents of same-sex marriage say that is an inconsistency.
Opponents aren’t the only ones who see this as an inconsistency. Your humble scribe does so as well. And with DOMA being deep-sixed from the White House Civil Rights web stite, my willingness to give Obama the benefit of the doubt shrinks proportionately.
In the past several weeks, there has been a remarkable sea-change on marriage equality. Four (possibly five) states are being added to the marriage equality column. This was unimaginable just a few months ago in the wake of California’s passage of Prop 8. But these remarkable development has been utterly invisible to the White House.
Obama promised bold leadership on these issues but we haven’t seen it. How can he be bold when he’s not even bothering to catch up?