State of the Union: What It Meant for LGBT Americans
LGBT activists held a lengthy wish list of policy changes they hoped the president would support in his State of the Union address. The 2013 agenda that Barack Obama outlined on Tuesday included only some of them, and without clear requests to Congress.
Activists including the Human Rights Campaign had recently ramped up calls for the president to sign an executive order banning employment discrimination among federal contractors. Obama had argued that only passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act could really protect LGBT workers. But neither policy change got a direct mention among the 2013 agenda. The president came closest early in the speech while outlining a broad principle.
"It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country," he said, "the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love."
Minutes after the speech, activists were quick to point out that Americans can't "get ahead" no matter who they love.
"Right now, this simply isn't possible," said Rea Carey, executive director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in a statement. "LGBT people remain acutely vulnerable in the workplace and on economic issues. Too many of us still head to work each day terrified it may be our last, simply because of who we are or who we love."
On some issues, the president was vague about LGBT inclusion. He called for the House to follow the Senate's lead and pass a domestic violence bill, for example. The version that actually passed the Senate was inclusive of services for gay and lesbian survivors of domestic violence but that could be stripped out by House Republicans.
The president called for "comprehensive" immigration reform without reiterating his call for including a provision that ends discrimination against same-sex binational couples. It would have been an important statement because Republican senators, including John McCain, have said that including gays and lesbians would scuttle the entire bill.
The State of the Union address is always one of the president's best chances to reach Americans, and in each of his last three speeches, Obama mentioned LGBT people only in connection with the military. Whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly has throughout his term had popular support from a wide cross-section of voters, polls show.
On Tuesday, Obama again directly mentioned gay people when talking about the military. "We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight," he promised.
Obama did not directly call for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. But granting equal benefits to military couples is only possible if it ends.
That was made clear on Monday when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the military would extend some limited benefits to same-sex couples. A lot remain unavailable because DOMA bans the federal government from recognizing the legal marriages of gays and lesbians.
As usual, the State of the Union address was often a laundry list of priorities. The president included calls to pass gun control, combat climate change, and invest in early education, for example. And he attacked Republicans for creating manufactured crisises that put the nation's fiscal health in question, calling on them to pay the bills on time.
The president focused most of his attention on the economy, declaring an end to the worst of the crisis that overshadowed most of his first term, but also calling on Congress to ask itself "How do we attract more jobs to our shores?"
Log Cabin Republicans focused their response on the economy, without mentioning ENDA or other issues. "If the President truly wants to be an ally to our community," said Gregory T. Angelo, the group's interim executive director, "he will not only continue pushing for social equality, but stop with the platitudes and get serious with a plan that addresses our nation's fiscal problems."