The White House Office
of Missed Opportunity
When President Obama
left the country for his world tour, same-sex couples could
marry legally in two states. On his return, that number will
increase 100%, to four states -- including the first state from
the Midwest as well as the first state to
legalize marriage legislatively without being ordered to do so
by the court.
As I write, I am still
waiting for the White House statement on the Vermont
legislature's historic vote to override Gov. Jim Douglas's
marriage bill veto, if one is issued at all. But in the
interim, let's review the White House's
response to Iowa's ruling
, which was sent to me at around 8 p.m. Friday:
"The President respects the decision of the Iowa
supreme court, and continues to believe that states should
make their own decisions when it comes to the issue of
marriage. Although President Obama supports civil unions
rather than same-sex marriage, he believes that committed gay
and lesbian couples should receive equal rights under the
Wow, what a buzz kill.
Now, just so everyone's clear about the state of play:
President Obama, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and press
secretary Robert Gibbs were juggling a few negotiations
overseas when the ruling came down, so the chances they signed
off on any statements are slim to none. Who knows if deputy
press secretary Bill Burton even saw it?
Given the fact that the
press shop sent out an initial version using the lackluster
word "protections" in the place of "equal rights," the
statement may not have even gone through a message machine.
Quite possibly, it was legal drivel -- the result of attorneys
who were more concerned about overcommitting the Administration
on something as explosive as relationship recognition (egad!)
than they were about how the statement would be
While it's hard to know
exactly how it all evolved, what's clear is that it was a
missed opportunity. While the Administration's main message
makers were distracted with wooing world support for stimulus
spending and committing more NATO troops in Afghanistan, the
power vacuum back home was begging for an Administration
official to realize the potential of the Iowa moment and nudge
open the door for LGBT rights just a little further.
Just take a look at
this excerpt from a joint statement issued by Iowa state
Democratic senate majority leader and house speaker:
"The court has ruled today that when two Iowans promise
to share their lives together, state law will respect that
commitment, regardless of whether the couple is gay or
"When all is said and done, we believe the only
lasting question about today's events will be why it took
us so long. It is a tough question to answer because treating
everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and
Iowa common decency."
Now that's what I'm
talking about. They saw an opportunity to unabashedly affirm
the rights of LGBT Americans and they took it. Were someone in
the Obama administration imbued with the power and graced with
the prescience, they too could have delivered a transformative
message that moved beyond the ever-cautious campaign speak
developed on the trail to embrace the Administration's power
and, indeed, its responsibility to set the tone on any and all
moral issues of the day.
I don't know about you,
but I'm ready to see a supercharged supernerd in the vein of
budget director Peter Orszag inject a little inspiration into
the Obama administration on LGBT issues in the same way he has
transformed the budgetary process. Without getting too wonkish
here, Orszag's singular vision has cast health care costs --
which have traditionally been left off budget spreadsheets
entirely -- as the linchpin to balancing the federal budget
over the next decade and for generations to come.
something that was once routinely excluded and reframe its
inclusion as both fundamental and essential. Not only is this
inspired, it also provides health care reform a fighting
chance. (Veterans of the Clinton's overhaul effort often say
that not budgeting funds for reform doomed the proposal before
it ever got out the door.)
Look, let's be
realistic -- no one expects President Obama to come out for
marriage equality. But for a President that has boldly
passed the largest stimulus in our country's history, upped our
troop commitment in Afghanistan, canned the CEO of a major
American company, and reached out to the Muslim
world well within the bounds of his first 100 days,
it's almost mystifying to think his administration sent out a
statement that read more like they were defending their
marriage stance than marking the moment.
A couple weeks ago,
Defense secretary Robert Gates told Fox News that he and the
president had a full plate and repealing "don't ask, don't
tell" would have to wait. It's a message that some LGBT
leaders have also subscribed to -- there's a lot going on, so
gays must wait for their rights.
Sometimes, the culture
pushes forward even when politicians aren't ready for it.
Last week, the middle of the country gave mainstream cred to
supporting marriage equality. This week, Vermont made equal
protection a legislative ideal as much as a judicial one.
If President Obama and
his top generals are too busy to take on LGBT issues, then the
time is right for someone with the vision and rank to find a
contemporary groove on our issues -- someone with a little
Orszag touch. And if that person existed already, the statement
issued last Friday would not have struck such a discordant note
with the vibe of the day.