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Where's the President?

My Live Online discussion yesterday started just moments after the news broke that Maine had become the fifth state to legalize same-sex marriage.

It made me realize how odd it was for a major civil-rights movement to be making huge strides -- with no leadership at all from the president of the United States. Especially given his devotion to civil rights generally.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in today's New York Times about how Obama "is under pressure to engage on a variety of gay issues that are coming to the fore amid a dizzying pace of social, political, legal and legislative change.

"Two of Mr. Obama's potential Supreme Court nominees are openly gay... Same-sex marriage is advancing in states — the latest to allow it is Maine — and a new flare-up in the District of Columbia could ultimately put the controversy in the lap of the president.

"Mr. Obama's new global health initiative has infuriated activists who say he is not financing AIDS programs generously enough. And while the president has urged Congress to pass a hate crimes bill, a high priority for gay groups, he has delayed action on one of his key campaign promises, repealing the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' rule.

"Social issues like same-sex marriage bring together deeply held principles and flashpoint politics, and many gay activists, aware that Mr. Obama is also dealing with enormous challenges at home and overseas, have counseled patience.

"But some are unsettled by what they see as the president's cautious approach."

Karen DeYoung, in a Washington Post profile of national security adviser James L. Jones today, offers some insight into one of Obama's decisions to stall: "When Obama was under pressure to review the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on gay service members, Jones said he went 'to see him personally on it' and advised him not to add another controversy to his already-full plate," DeYoung writes. "The president, Jones said, took his advice."

Press secretary Robert Gibbs couldn't have been more noncommittal at yesterday's press briefing:

Q. "Does the President or the White House have a reaction to the Governor of Maine signing a same-sex marriage bill?"

Gibbs: "No, I think the President's position on same-sex marriages has been talked about and discussed."

Q. "He opposes same-sex marriage."

Gibbs: "He supports civil unions."

Q. "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."

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 7, 2009; 12:14 PM ET
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Next: The Fire in Cheney's Belly


The President made it clear during the campaign that he did not endorse same sex marriage.

Of course he supports civil rights for racial minorities. I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who seriously doesn't in the country today. Even the right wing who is trying to push back affirmative action and other hallmarks of the civil rights movement claim they are doing so because those programs have served their purpose in bringing about equality.

On the issues of gay rights I don't think that Obama feels it in his gut. He doesn't understand that gay people today are fighting for many of the same rights that racial minorities were fighting for in the fifties. The right to marry who you want whether they are the same race or gender. The right to be secure in your employment. The knowledge that when you are attacked simply for your outward appearance it will be prosecuted to the full extent possible.

Obama practices the same soft form of bigotry that Bill Clinton and many other politicians embrace. They are content in allowing the fight for civil rights to play out over decades. They are content to triangulate and come up with compromises like "Don't Ask Don't Tell" which are as embarrassing as "Separate But Equal". They support civil rights in the abstract, but are unwilling to sacrifice political capital to fight for the rights of a minority.

Posted by: fletc3her | May 7, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

This is all incredibly discouraging for many gay people, and there's a rising anger that we support Democrats overwhelmingly, we write our checks, help the party, then get tossed under the bus.

I don't see how Obama--urban, liberal, educated, former law professor--can possibly defend intellectually the separate-but-equal-ness of civil unions. It makes no sense to me.

Which, of course, leads to the conclusion that it's just about politics. We make up what, 3-5% of the population? He can afford to put us on the back burner. He can afford to give us a half-empty glass.

And he knows we'll still support him, because the alternative is so much worse.

Posted by: DeanPhoenix | May 7, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

There is only one fair resolution for this debacle: states must stop recognizing the religious sacrament of marriage. It's unconstitutional, and it allows religion to dictate state policies.

The ultimate solution is for states to recognize ONLY civil unions between two consenting adults of either sex. Those who choose to do so may still get married, but it's a private decision that should have no bearing on the rights and privileges afforded to couples by the state.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | May 7, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

The fact is, though, that the states ARE addressing the gay marriage issue, quite quickly and with increasing momentum. And that's where the issue rests in terms of law. It's not clear to me how Obama's "leadership" from Washington would improve on this scenario, and it might backfire by giving the national anti-gay-marriage movement a highly visible target and rallying cry.

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" question is different. If he hasn't seriously tackled that within another 18 months or so, that would be a cop-out.

Posted by: herzliebster | May 7, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

The Conservadems will probably block dadt. In less than 2 years we will have at least 66 Democrats in the Senate and can affort to drop a few. On dadt we will probably get the Maine Senators as well, so we will be able to afford the loss of the Landrieu-Lincoln-Pryor-Nelson-Bayh-Testor belt.

Posted by: dickdata | May 7, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

You are assuming that President Obama cares about civil rights more than he cares about his own popular position - a very faulty assumption. This is one of the most timid, least progressive Democratic Presidents we have ever had. He is less adventurous, even, than President Clinton, when it comes to sticking his neck out for someone else.

Those who haven't figured this out by now will probably get it before this first year is over.

Posted by: johnsonc2 | May 9, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

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