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View From Washington: Straight WH Allies

View From Washington: Straight WH Allies

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Senior White House adviser Melody Barnes was in the unenviable position Thursday of fielding questions from eight LGBT reporters and bloggers -- a first-of-its-kind briefing 18 months into an administration whose commander in chief hasn't given a single interview to an LGBT outlet nor taken a single question from one.

Yesterday I attempted to squeeze the news from the meeting (other than the fact that it happened), which involved no new policy announcements and was essentially a reiteration of things most people who have been following LGBT concerns closely probably already know.

But one issue that surfaced several different ways in questions asked by Chris Geidner of Metro Weekly, Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend, and Joe Sudbay of AmericaBlog was why there isn't a high-level LGBT adviser somewhere in Obama's inner circle -- either someone who is LGBT and has direct access to the president or someone who has direct access and is specifically responsible for advocating on behalf of LGBT people.

Barnes, who is as knowledgeable about LGBT policy as any one of us could hope and who has worked on gay issues for over a decade (including eight years in Sen. Ted Kennedy's office) and who -- I would hazard to guess -- is probably the strongest advocate for LGBT causes in Obama's cohort of senior advisers, gave a very thoughtful answer. It's an answer that I don't entirely agree with but that's worthy of debate, and so, at the risk of boring readers, I am going to run a good chunk of her answer before playing devil's advocate.

Melody Barnes: "I think that there are a number of very senior members of this administration, whether it be Rahm [Emanuel] or Valerie [Jarrett] or me or Jim [Messina] that are not gay or lesbian for whom these issues are important and [who] have conversations and provide advice to the president on these issues. And I think that it is helpful and important to have people -- and before you react to this I want to follow this up -- who are not gay or lesbian or transgender who care about these issues and are advocating for them in the White House.

"It was Rahm who was pushing the hospital visitation piece. The chief of staff to the president went to the Oval Office and said, 'I think that this is something important that we need to do.'

"At the same time -- and I say this having hired people, having been a manager, and being a woman of color -- I also believe that is important and I understand it's important to have a table set where there are different perspectives at the table and there are LGBT senior colleagues who may not have as their portfolio specifically LGBT issues, but they come to the table with expertise on personnel, on the environment, and a whole host of other issues, who do participate in these conversations and who sit at the table and bring their perspective to the conversation on a consistent basis.

"So while there isn't an individual, sometimes the move from an individual to multiple individuals -- gay, straight, and transgender -- is also a reflection of the maturation of the issues in the White House or in a business or anywhere else. While there isn't an individual, there are also many individuals who care about this issue, drive this issue, this set of issues, and how we move forward."

To sum up, Barnes is saying that although there's no single LGBT adviser at the top, she, Emanuel, Jarrett, and Messina are all advocating on behalf of LGBT Americans. Plus high-level gays and lesbians like John Berry, who runs the Office of Personnel Management, and Nancy Sutley, who heads the White House Council on Environmental Quality, also show up to weigh in on LGBT policy and strategy at certain junctures.

While I will give Rahm Emanuel credit for pushing hospital visitation rights, I will also point out that allowing gay people access to their loved ones in the hospital polls at 86%, meaning there couldn't possibly be a political downside. It's an important advancement, but the question is, What happens when an issue that might not be such a slam dunk comes to fore?

The problem is, not a single one of those people can be held accountable individually since they are all presumably responsible. And perhaps more to the point, every one of this quartet is always going to place the interests of the president ahead of the interests of LGBT equality without ever facing push-back or potential alienation from their own social set. In short, because they are not LGBT, they will never put the community's interest on a par with the president's.

I don't doubt that all four of those folks generally have their heart in the right place where LGBT rights are concerned, but whenever an issue comes up that isn't quite as clear-cut as hospital visitation, a political beast like Rahm Emanuel will, by nature, default to a risk-averse stance.

That's why I took note when President Obama kicked off the week last Sunday with some rather candid comments at the G-20 that seemed quite telling -- comments that Joe Sudbay probed during the meeting with Barnes.

In response to a question about whether the administration would make good on its commitment to meet certain debt reduction goals, Obama said, "For some reason people keep on being surprised when I do what I said I was going to do. So I say I'm going to reform our health care system and people think, well, gosh, that's not smart politics, maybe we should hold off. Or I say, we're going to move forward on 'don't ask, don't tell,' and somehow people say, well, why are you doing that, I'm not sure that's good politics."

Now, the notion that the White House mounted a serious effort to pass DADT repeal this year is debatable, but what I was most struck by was the president's assertion that some people say moving forward on "don't ask, don't tell" isn't "good politics." Which led me to wonder, who? Where is the president getting that from? Obviously, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Carl Levin thought it was good politics, because they pressed the vote forward in both chambers, ostensibly concluding that inaction would in fact be worse politics. A very solid 70% of the American people consistently signal in poll after poll that it's good politics (far more than were ever on board with the health care bill). And as a politician who campaigned regularly on the issue of repeal and won election handily, you would think Obama himself would believe that making good on a pledge to do something that's so widely supported across the country would be good politics.

Yet somehow this president is getting the message that touching DADT is dangerous territory. By process of elimination, I would say it's a good bet that thinking is coming from within the White House. And if our four advocates there -- or at least the one the president was channeling in his remarks -- aren't convinced DADT repeal is good politics, I can't imagine what's being said about other equality issues like including LGBT families in immigration, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, same-sex marriage, and repealing the Defense of Marriage Act.
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