Obama: "Prepared to Implement"

President Obama spoke with The Advocate in a wide-ranging interview.

BY Kerry Eleveld

December 22 2010 2:35 AM ET

BARACK OBAMA AND KERRY ELEVELD X550

Did you anticipate that that survey would turn out like that?
I was confident about it because I talked to enough troops and I had a sense of the innate fairness of the American people when it comes to an issue like should people be able to serve their military and potentially die for their country, that military attitudes were not going to be wildly divergent from public attitudes. And then to see how that combination of Gates, Mullen, [and] the study [could] break the logjam and essentially provide the space for people of goodwill of both parties to do the right thing was just really gratifying.

And things don't always go according to your plans, and so when they do—especially in this town — it’s pleasantly surprising. And when I think about the troops who I know are impacted by this — I visited Afghanistan just a few weeks ago. And while I was doing the rope line, a young woman in uniform was shaking my hand — it was a big crowd — she hugged me and she whispered in my ear, “Get ‘don't ask, don't tell’ done.” And I said to her, “I promise you I will.” And for me to be able to deliver that Christmas present to her and so many others is incredibly gratifying.

So I would say, look ... we’ve done a lot this year and we did a lot the previous year, and so obviously saving the economy from depression, getting health care passed, and getting financial regulatory reform are all things that I’m very proud of. But this is one of those issues where you know individual people directly that are going to be impacted and you know it helps shift attitudes in a direction of greater fairness over the long term. I think when people look back 20 years from now they’ll say this was one of the more important things that I’ve gotten done since I’ve been president.

Well, no doubt I think a pivotal moment. And I know that so many people who voted for you, LGBT folks who voted for you, did so because they believe that you were a fierce supporter of equality. Given what you’ve just said, Mr. President, do you think it’s time that gays and lesbians should be entitled to full marriage rights?
Well, I spoke about this recently with some bloggers who were here ...

Mr. Joe Sudbay.
Yes, and Joe asked me the same question. And since I've been making a lot of news over the last several weeks, I’m not going to make more news today. The sentiment I expressed then is still where I am — which is, like a lot of people, I’m wrestling with this. My attitudes are evolving on this. I have always firmly believed in having a robust civil union that provides the rights and benefits under the law that marriage does. I’ve wrestled with the fact that marriage traditionally has had a different connotation. But I also have a lot of very close friends who are married gay or lesbian couples.

And squaring that circle is something that I have not done yet, but I’m continually asking myself this question, and I do think that — I will make this observation, that I notice there is a big generational difference. When you talk to people who are in their 20s, they don’t understand what the holdup is on this, regardless of their own sexual orientation. And obviously when you talk to older folks, then there’s greater resistance.

And so this is an issue that I’m still wrestling with, others are still wrestling with. What I know is that at minimum, a baseline is that there has to be a strong, robust civil union available to all gay and lesbian couples.

Can you imagine a time when you would get there? I mean, you say “evolving,” and that sort of assumes that you get somewhere. Can you imagine a time of getting there?
I'm going to stick with my answer.

OK. So, looking forward, I know that there are — many of your LGBT supporters would have wished for more in the first two years. And it’s never enough, of course ...
I’ve found that.

And especially like passing employment nondiscrimination ...
And, in fairness, by the way, that is true of every single group of supporters that I have. I mean, there’s not a single constituency that doesn’t think we could be doing more.

And true of every civil rights movement.
Yes.

I know one of the things that people were interested [in] — especially gay and transgender Americans — was passing employment nondiscrimination protections. But looking forward, it looks like most legislation, pro-LGBT, will be stalled in Congress. So as you look to much of the action that’s going to be happening in the courts — do you think that gays and lesbians and transgender people should have a heightened scrutiny status?
Before I answer that question, let me just say there are still a lot of things we can do administratively even if we don’t pass things legislatively. So my ability to make sure that the federal government is an employer that treats gays and lesbians fairly, that’s something I can do, and sets a model for folks across the board. Our implementation ...

But DOMA, of course, is one of the ...
I understand. Our changes on hospital visitation is something that didn’t require legislation but has concrete impacts, making a difference in people’s lives as we speak.

So I want to continue to look for ways administratively, even if we’re not able to get something through the House of Representatives or the Senate, that advances the causes of equality.

With respect to the courts and heightened scrutiny, I think that if you look at where Justice [Anthony] Kennedy is moving, the kind of rational review that he applied in the Texas case was one that feels right to me and says that, even if he was calling it “rational review,” is one that recognizes that certain groups may be vulnerable to stereotypes, certain groups may be subject to discrimination, and that the court’s job historically is to pay attention to that.

And so I’m not going to engage in — I’m not going to put my constitutional lawyer hat on now, partly because I’m president and I’ve got to be careful about my role in the three branches of government here. But what I will say is that I think that the courts historically have played a critical role in making sure that all Americans are protected under the law. And there are certain groups that are in need of that protection; the court needs to make sure it’s there for them.

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