When a Nod’s Not Enough
BY James Kirchick
January 05 2009 12:00 AM ET
While candidate Obama promised much, effecting all the change he guaranteed on the stump will be much more difficult for President Obama than his ever-optimistic admirers might imagine. Though Obama sailed with seeming effortlessness from state legislator to president of the United States in just four years, he now faces what is perhaps the most daunting set of challenges confronted by a newly elected president since Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office nearly 30 years ago. Aside from two wars that have strained the American military, an ongoing and fearsome terrorism threat, and an emboldened Russia that is behaving more and more like the Soviet Union of old, Obama must also contend with a spiraling financial crisis that has affected every aspect of the global economy and presents this country with the gravest economic peril since the Great Depression. Given this series of grueling tasks, is it realistic to expect Barack Obama to make gay-related issues a real priority?
There are many things the new president can do with a stroke of the pen. First will be the appointment of a White House liaison to the LGBT community, a position initiated by Bill Clinton and left vacant by George W. Bush. While the office may seem symbolic, it ensures that gay people will have a direct line to someone who has the president’s ear.
HIV/AIDS is an issue that usually ranks behind “don’t ask, don’t tell,” DOMA, and hate-crimes protections on most gay activists’ list of priorities, but it’s a resurgent problem in the United States and one that Obama could do much on his own to combat. Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress and a longtime lobbyist for gay causes, says that Obama’s appointment of Melody Barnes as director of his Domestic Policy Council signals major changes in the federal government’s approach to the epidemic. That’s because Barnes, a former aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy and a former colleague of Stachelberg’s at the center, is an advocate of increased funding for comprehensive sex education and condom distribution. For the past eight years, “the President’s Advisory Council [on HIV/AIDS] was populated by abstinence-only, ideological folks,” Stachelberg says. “Barnes at DPC is another example of how there will be a more robust and aggressive effort with respect to HIV/AIDS.”
Through executive orders—policy changes the president can enact on his own without having to consult Congress -- Obama also will be able to play a significant role in furthering gay equality, both through the reversal of Bush-era decrees and by signing his own. In November, the Human Rights Campaign delivered a 12-page memorandum to the Obama transition team, calling on the president-elect to issue executive orders that would ban discrimination against transgender employees in federal agencies, prevent federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and remove HIV from the government’s list of “communicable disease[s] of public health significance” so that HIV-positive foreigners can enter the country legally. These moves will be relatively easy for the new president to make, and advocates anticipate that he will close the deal. What’s more difficult to predict is how he’ll be able to move pro-gay legislation through Congress and how enthusiastic he is about waging those fights.