View From the Hill
As I sat in Wednesday's prime-time press conference marking President Obama's first 100 days, my mind kept returning to an observation Doris Kearns Goodwin made last Sunday on Meet the Press: Barack Obama likes to govern.
Seems like a relatively simple observation, but its importance and consequence cannot be overstated. Before George W. Bush won office in 2000, the late, great Molly Ivins and coauthor Lou Dubose wrote with great prescience, "Where Bush is weak is on the governance side of politics. For the record, it appears that he doesn't know much, doesn't do much, and doesn't care much about governing. ... Trouble is, when you aren't particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of governing, you end up with staff-driven policy." Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush predicted the calamity that became the U.S. government for the next eight years. Policy preferences aside, one need look no further than the disastrous Katrina response to know that our government was asleep at the switch.
Whatever one might think about President Obama's policies, he clearly relishes the work he was elected to do and has responded swiftly to every challenge facing our country. That enthusiasm was reflected in this week's battery of polls, which found the American public highly approves of President Obama personally (60%-70%) even if his policies on the economy, defense, and otherwise draw less unilateral support.
But popularity is fleeting, and President Obama has consistently said he will ultimately be judged by how effectively he governs -- whether people feel safe and are gainfully employed by 2012. The same is true of his LGBT policies -- he will be judged by his accomplishments, not his rhetoric or his intentions.
President Obama's first 100 days produced many promising signs for LGBT people -- not least of which is how much access community leaders are getting to the White House. But even with those advances, many activists charge -- and perhaps with some justification -- that most of what has materialized so far is window dressing. Inviting LGBT families to the White House Easter Egg Roll was a lovely gesture, goes the thinking, but it doesn't protect those moms and dads from getting fired for their sexual orientation or even provide them with health benefits.
While I believe the access our community is getting bodes well for LGBT equality in the next four years, it also poses a dilemma. As one movement leader said to me with a bit of trepidation, "We're playing a real inside game right now." What that calls into question is just how hard advocates are pushing either publicly or behind the scenes when the administration appears to be defaulting on its commitment to LGBT rights. The problem with raising holy heck when you're on the inside, of course, is that you live in fear of getting shut out.
From a policy standpoint, on big-ticket items like hate crimes, employment nondiscrimination, and "don't ask, don't tell," the Obama administration's signals have been mixed. President Obama himself notably issued a statement this week urging swift passage of the hate-crimes bill in both the House and the Senate (it never hurts for lawmakers to hear the wishes of a president with 60-plus approval ratings).
But the administration has also seemed to be hedging on some of the heavier lifts like allowing gays who are willing to die for their country the opportunity to do it in full view of their fellow countrymen. Over the past month, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has appeared to consistently be backing away from the administration's pledge to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
While some LGBT leaders privately expressed their disenchantment to administration officials, the first public outcry from an LGBT organization came in the form of a full-page ad placed in Roll Call by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in which executive director Aubrey Sarvis urged Obama to use the defense budget as a vehicle for ending the military's gay ban. That prompted this piece from LGBT activist Joan Garry, a key fund-raiser for Obama's campaign, who took issue with Sarvis's approach.
Without dissecting the details of either argument, Garry rightly notes in her piece that patience does not come naturally to equality activists. As many in our community warn, no marginalized group has ever made gains by standing silently in the corner.
I would add that playing the inside game is also an uncomfortable space for a movement that has been lobbing grenades from a bunker for so many years.
The uncharted territory in which we find ourselves is both fertile and disorienting. President Obama, in my opinion, has set the stage for possibility, even if the deliverables have yet to emerge. But with so many challenges facing the nation and the gay-issue residue that undoubtedly hovers over high-level staffers like Rahm Emanuel (who had a front-row seat for President Clinton's early LGBT missteps), our commander in chief will most certainly need consistent and persistent nudging along the path to LGBT equality.
That nudging may look and feel altogether different than it has in the past, leaving us with no time-tested, silver-bullet approach. I would urge LGBT activists working on both the inside and outside of this administration to continually second-guess their first impulses and then proceed to act with caution. Sometimes, lobbing that grenade yields nothing more than collateral damage, and other times settling for soothing reassurances is simply a dead-end road to complacency. As President Obama says himself, he will be judged on what he delivers. And so will the LGBT leaders who head our organizations during this critical time, whether they are whispering in his ear or shouting from behind the White House gates.