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Obama: The Good Enough President?

Obama: The Good Enough President?


It's weathered with age; its font is a bit vintage. But the message of the 1996 internal memo on the stakes of a presidential reelection is strikingly current, even more than 15 years later:

"To abandon the President who has delivered on the overwhelming majority of his commitment to gays and lesbians to end discrimination, especially when the alternative is virtually guaranteed to be a President who will rapidly turn back the clock on gay and lesbian progress, would be a political mistake which would haunt gays and lesbians for decades," wrote Brian Bond, former executive director of the Democratic National Committee's Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council, in a January 1996 memorandum to Democratic National Committee and White House officials. Included is a compendium of administration accomplishments, from endorsement of the still-pending Employment Non-Discrimination Act to significant increases in public health spending on HIV/AIDS -- milestones overshadowed in particular by one lamentable moment over which the 42nd president presided: passage of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"Bill Clinton has been the first President this nation has ever had to forthrightly, candidly, and in all but one case successfully attack some of the most basic and virulent discrimination that persists against gays and lesbians," wrote Bond, now President Obama's deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

As Gay Pride Month draws to a close today, pundits, community leaders, and activists are evaluating anew President Obama's own advocacy -- how the accomplishments that the administration has already achieved, and continues to achieve, should be weighed against his current marriage stance, one that Freedom to Marry founder and attorney Evan Wolfson has said is "wrong -- historically, constitutionally, politically, and morally."

The president struck a confident tone during Wednesday evening's pride reception remarks at the White House ("I've met my commitments to the LGBT community"), confidence reiterated by Bond. "The President is proud of the accomplishments he and his Administration have achieved for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people here and abroad -- accomplishments that have a positive impact on the daily lives of the LGBT community," he said in a statement. "He looks forward to continuing that progress in the months and years to come."

The Obama LGBT accomplishment list, featured on a White House Web page launched June 1, contains unquestionable historic victories for gay Americans, including declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, signing "don't ask, don't tell" repeal into law, and assuring rights to hospital visitation and medical decisions for LGBT couples. The Democratic National Committee, which hosted an LGBT Leadership fund-raiser in New York last week, has its own list as well, enumerating accomplishments from the substantive to the symbolic. "Everybody agrees that we've made more progress at the federal level in the last two and half years than in the last 250 years combined," DNC treasurer Andy Tobias said Wednesday morning (the president echoed the sentiment a few hours later in his news conference, saying that in opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, "We have done more in the two and a half years that I've been in here than the previous 43 Presidents"). "At the same time, we all, including the president, want to see a lot more progress," Tobias added.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, which endorsed Obama's reelection last month, said that LGBT voters will ultimately judge the president on the full body of his accomplishments. While an endorsement for marriage equality would be a huge symbolic moment, "if the president endorses marriage, it's not game over," Sainz said. "It's one peg in a larger strategy. We're also focusing on meaningful legislation, on policy changes, on everything that will, over time, make the lives of LGBT people better."

Others maintain that the New York victory has changed everything, making Obama's marriage position untenable and eclipsing what has been accomplished. "People now see what is possible with leadership that truly embraces full equality," said Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters and a former special assistant and LGBT adviser in the Clinton administration. "I give the president a lot of credit for the recent leadership he exhibited around not defending [DOMA]. He gets credit for DADT repeal, as it happened on his watch. The rest of the [accomplishment] list is minor, incremental stuff, important if you are directly impacted, for sure, but not big, institutional or cultural change items."

Said Marsha Scott, a former deputy assistant to President Clinton and one recipient of the 1996 memo: "Of course I think people do want to see [Obama] reelected. The alternative would be a horrific setback. But he has promised things he is now not able to do." The administration made a historic move in February to no longer defend DOMA in federal court challenges. "Will DOMA be repealed [in this term]? No," Scott said. "Can we change much legislatively now? No. But that doesn't mean this constituency shouldn't continue to hold him accountable."

Some observers say this set of circumstances may mean a continued full-court press on the marriage issue as the summer progresses as well as continuing to clear up the record on what exactly has been accomplished -- even among the more minor "firsts." Speaking last week to The New Civil Rights Movement, an online journal, Paul Yandura, who served as director of gay and lesbian outreach on the Clinton and Gore campaigns and was once executive director of the DNC's LGBT Leadership Council, said the claim that Obama is the first sitting president to attend an LGBT fund-raiser is incorrect -- that President Clinton had attended one in Dallas in 2000 during the end of his presidency (Obama is the first president running for reelection to attend an LGBT fund-raiser, National Public Radio clarified following a story last week).

The DNC's list also touts the Obama White House as the first to send "an administration official to the Senate to testify in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act." Bond's 1996 memo, however, notes that the Clinton administration had sent its own official: "When ENDA was first introduced, in 1993, the Clinton administration sent Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights [now Massachusetts governor] Deval Patrick to testify at the one hearing on the bill in the Senate in support of the principle of non-discrimination against gays and lesbians in the employment context," he wrote.

"It doesn't irk me," Scott said of the accomplishments list. "You do spend the first year and a half working so hard [in the White House], and the closer you get to reelection, the more concentrated you are on touting your boss's successes. Though I'd like to see accuracy" as well as a little more historical context in general, given public polling on support for gay rights causes in 2011 versus the 1990s, she said.

Yandura, whose partner filed suit against the DNC after he was terminated in 2007 (the suit was later settled on undisclosed terms), insists he has not wavered in casting a vote for Obama in 2012.

"But we should look at what he promised versus what is a first. Being a first is a low bar at this point," said Yandura, who runs the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Scott and Yandura along with Scott. "Elections are special opportunities to be heard. All we're asking of him is to do what he had promised. To be a fierce advocate. And no one should have any shame in doing so."
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