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View From Washington SOTU


Republican Scott Brown swept into the late Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat during last Tuesday's special election in Massachusetts, changing the course of history. Some people have suggested that the Democrats losing their 60th Senate seat is a blessing in disguise for Obama's agenda. Democrats will be more pragmatic now, the thinking goes, they will forge a path to compromise without the pressure of maintaining pristine party unity in order to overcome GOP filibusters.

Perhaps that will be true for health reform, though no one has any real clarity yet about what the path forward is. But for the larger progressive agenda, including initiatives like immigration reform, cap and trade, and LGBT issues, the aftershocks of Brown's win may be far more detrimental.

One Capitol Hill veteran I spoke with on Friday was particularly pessimistic, for instance, about the prospects that the White House will push for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" this year.

"I'm getting the sense they will try to ignore this as long as possible and then they will maybe trot out some commission to delay it another year if they are forced to do anything," said the person. "It will be fascinating to see what the LGBT community does if they do this."

Those sentiments appeared to be backed up by some facts on the ground. Chief among them: Even though Democratic senator Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced that he planned to hold hearings on the military's gay ban before the end of January, a date has yet to be set even though this week marks the end of the month.

It also seems that a vacuum of leadership from the White House on the policy has allowed dissenters to take center stage. Two weeks ago, a memo was leaked from the Pentagon indicating that Adm. Mike Mullen's in-house counsel had advised delaying repeal for at least a year.

The only perceptible push back on that leak came at a briefing when press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "I don't believe that the opinion of one person reflects the opinion of everyone in that building, nor does it reflect the opinion of everyone in this building, particularly the president of the United States."

That same week, Rep. Ike Skelton, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, registered his opposition to changing the policy. The news was not a good omen for repeal, though Skelton's position should be understood in the context of a reelection campaign where several of his GOP challengers have begun to key in on "don't ask, don't tell" as a campaign issue. (Remember the lesson of Scott Brown: No Democratic seat is safe in 2010.)

Although Democrats and the White House spent last week trying to regroup and discern how they could still snatch some sort of health reform victory from the jaws of defeat, this week, during his State of the Union address, the President will have to paint a picture for the American people of where he's headed in 2010.

Said one person with ties to Capitol Hill and the White House: "The decision makers are rightfully working 100% on solving the immediate problem of how to get health care done or off the plate. But they have a big speech on Wednesday and have to address rest of agenda then so someone must be thinking about it."

To be sure, the Massachusetts result forced the administration to think in more real terms about middle-class Americans and their most immediate needs.

"They have to connect with things that average Americans are thinking about now," said the Capitol Hill veteran. "Cap and trade isn't one of those; 'don't ask, don't tell' isn't one of those."

But the administration also faces the challenge that their polling is in the tanker among both independents and the Democratic base. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll out last week put Obama's approval rating among independents at just 41%. As the WSJ noted, "that's an 11-point drop from his performance on Election Day in 2008, when he won 52% of independents, and a near-20-point decline among that group from the heights of his popularity soon after taking office."

Asked how the administration might address that problem, the Capitol Hill vet said the White House would look for ways to thread the needle with issues that please both but don't alienate either.

"Going after Wall Street is a way to do both, for instance," said the source, referring to the administration's pledge last week to "collect every dime" of taxpayers' funds that helped big banks.

The president's speech in Elyria, Ohio, on Friday appears to predict the tone his State of the Union will take on.

"Let me tell you," Obama told the crowd, "so long as I have the privilege of serving as your president, I'll never stop fighting for you. I'll take my lumps too. I'll never stop fighting to bring jobs back to Elyria. I'll never stop fighting for an economy where hard work is rewarded, where responsibility is honored, where accountability is upheld, where we're creating the jobs of tomorrow."

In fact, the president used the word "fight" or "fighting" more than 20 times in the approximately 20-minute speech, according to The New York Times.

But it's still not clear what this president is fighting for -- the smoothest demagogic path to reelection or the ideals of fairness and equality that Democratic and independent voters alike believed he would champion as president. And fighting for the right of gay Americans to serve their country in unbounded honor rests as comfortably under that rubric as does fighting for the economic security of the middle class.

A WSJ op-ed Monday reminded us of Obama's own words as a candidate: "America is ready to get rid of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. All that is required is leadership."

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