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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Where Is Our New Deal?

Obama Signs The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act
Richard Socarides, former White House staffer who advised President Bill Clinton on gay issues, wrote this the other day in the Washington Post:
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. . . .

Obama should champion comprehensive, omnibus federal gay civil rights legislation, similar to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation and granting a basic umbrella of protections in employment, education, housing and the like (rather than the existing piecemeal approach to legislation). Such a bill should also provide for federal recognition of both civil unions and marriages as they are authorized by specific states.

Obama is in a good position, and the time is ripe for a new approach. Taking these steps might spare the country the trauma of devolving into a pervasive and divisive debate over gay marriage, which, after all, is not the only issue of concern to gay and lesbian Americans.

Gay voters who supported Barack Obama remain positive about him, and most are prepared to be patient. It's still early on gay rights for the Obama administration -- but now is the time to act boldly.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes today in the New York Times:

The White House, aware of the discontent, invited leaders of some prominent gay rights organizations to meet Monday with top officials, including Jim Messina, Mr. Obama’s deputy chief of staff, to plot legislative strategy on the hate crimes bill as well as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Among those attending was Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, who said afterward that while the gay rights agenda might not be “unfolding exactly as we thought,” he was pleased.

“They have a vision,” Mr. Solmonese said. “They have a plan.”

While Mr. Obama has said he is “open to the possibility” that his views on same-sex marriage are misguided, he has offered no signal that he intends to change his position. And as he confronts that and other issues important to gay rights advocates, he faces an array of pressures and risks.

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. . . .

“We’ve elected probably the most pro-gay president in history; he’s very good on the issues but he is not good on gay marriage,” said Steven Elmendorf, a gay Democratic lobbyist. “From the gay community’s perspective, he and a lot of other elected officials are wrong on this. My view is that over time, they’re going to realize they’re wrong and they’re going to change.”

Mr. Obama has chosen a number of openly gay people for prominent jobs, including Fred P. Hochberg as chairman of the Export-Import Bank and John Berry to run the Office of Personnel Management. And he is the first president to set aside tickets for gay families to attend the White House Easter Egg Roll.

Tobias Wolff, a law professor at the
University of Pennsylvania who was Mr. Obama’s top campaign adviser on gay rights, said the president needed time to build political consensus.

“I think he has a genuine sense,” Mr. Wolff said, “that in order to move these issues forward you need broader buy-in than you are going to get if you poke a stick in too many people’s eyes.”

What I Say: Egg rolls are nice - but just a symbol. There are other things that have a vast, profound effect on people's lives - money, taxes, property, inheritance, health insurance, careers, and all the 1, 138 federal laws that confer rights and privileges on married people. These are the things that deserve to be squarely and fairly addressed - sooner, not later.

I understand there is a time and season for everything; and in the big, messy political world, timing is extra important. Obama, as I suspect, is a pragmatist, not a great crusader: he's interested in what works, in pulling different sides together, avoiding heated confrontations, waiting for consensus to emerge, doing things step by step, neat and nice, no muss, no fuss.

All well and good. If you aren't the one waiting on justice to be done - if you aren't the one suffering and burdened because you don't have the equal protection of the laws, that equal respect and dignity that is due to every single American.

Come on, Big Man - I've been waiting not just a few months, but a whole lifetime for equality and justice.

You got my vote; now do what you promised me, and all of us. We're counting on you.

Update - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi today said Congress won't block the District of Columbia's decision to recognize same-sex marriages from other states; but she also said she won't push Congress to take action on DOMA and DADT:

“Members will make a priority of issues like gays in the military. And where we have prospects of success, we always want to expand to a place of more opportunity and more freedom for all — for all Americans,” she said. “But right now, our agenda is jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs. And as we move on that front, concurrently, we have to make some decisions about what is possible and our values-based initiatives as well.”

Another update - Queerty reports that the President has written a personal note to a lesbian Army officer, now about to be discharged under DADT, affirming that he is "committed to changing" the policy - but is that the same as repealing it?

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