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The White House Office
of Missed Opportunity

The White House Office
of Missed Opportunity


While President Obama traveled abroad, the marriage-equality landscape underwent a tectonic shift. But his administration is still too firmly rooted in last year's campaign mode to absorb the change.

When President Obama left the country for his world tour, same-sex couples could marry legally in two states. On his return, that number will increase 100%, to four states -- including the first state from the Midwest as well as the first state to legalize marriage legislatively without being ordered to do so by the court.

As I write, I am still waiting for the White House statement on the Vermont legislature's historic vote to override Gov. Jim Douglas's marriage bill veto, if one is issued at all. But in the interim, let's review the White House's response to Iowa's ruling , which was sent to me at around 8 p.m. Friday:

"The President respects the decision of the Iowa supreme court, and continues to believe that states should make their own decisions when it comes to the issue of marriage. Although President Obama supports civil unions rather than same-sex marriage, he believes that committed gay and lesbian couples should receive equal rights under the law."

Wow, what a buzz kill. Now, just so everyone's clear about the state of play: President Obama, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and press secretary Robert Gibbs were juggling a few negotiations overseas when the ruling came down, so the chances they signed off on any statements are slim to none. Who knows if deputy press secretary Bill Burton even saw it?

Given the fact that the press shop sent out an initial version using the lackluster word "protections" in the place of "equal rights," the statement may not have even gone through a message machine. Quite possibly, it was legal drivel -- the result of attorneys who were more concerned about overcommitting the Administration on something as explosive as relationship recognition (egad!) than they were about how the statement would be received.

While it's hard to know exactly how it all evolved, what's clear is that it was a missed opportunity. While the Administration's main message makers were distracted with wooing world support for stimulus spending and committing more NATO troops in Afghanistan, the power vacuum back home was begging for an Administration official to realize the potential of the Iowa moment and nudge open the door for LGBT rights just a little further.

Just take a look at this excerpt from a joint statement issued by Iowa state Democratic senate majority leader and house speaker:

"The court has ruled today that when two Iowans promise to share their lives together, state law will respect that commitment, regardless of whether the couple is gay or straight.

"When all is said and done, we believe the only lasting question about today's events will be why it took us so long. It is a tough question to answer because treating everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and Iowa common decency."

Now that's what I'm talking about. They saw an opportunity to unabashedly affirm the rights of LGBT Americans and they took it. Were someone in the Obama administration imbued with the power and graced with the prescience, they too could have delivered a transformative message that moved beyond the ever-cautious campaign speak developed on the trail to embrace the Administration's power and, indeed, its responsibility to set the tone on any and all moral issues of the day.

I don't know about you, but I'm ready to see a supercharged supernerd in the vein of budget director Peter Orszag inject a little inspiration into the Obama administration on LGBT issues in the same way he has transformed the budgetary process. Without getting too wonkish here, Orszag's singular vision has cast health care costs -- which have traditionally been left off budget spreadsheets entirely -- as the linchpin to balancing the federal budget over the next decade and for generations to come.

Brilliant! Take something that was once routinely excluded and reframe its inclusion as both fundamental and essential. Not only is this inspired, it also provides health care reform a fighting chance. (Veterans of the Clinton's overhaul effort often say that not budgeting funds for reform doomed the proposal before it ever got out the door.)

Look, let's be realistic -- no one expects President Obama to come out for marriage equality. But for a President that has boldly passed the largest stimulus in our country's history, upped our troop commitment in Afghanistan, canned the CEO of a major American company, and reached out to the Muslim world well within the bounds of his first 100 days, it's almost mystifying to think his administration sent out a statement that read more like they were defending their marriage stance than marking the moment.

A couple weeks ago, Defense secretary Robert Gates told Fox News that he and the president had a full plate and repealing "don't ask, don't tell" would have to wait. It's a message that some LGBT leaders have also subscribed to -- there's a lot going on, so gays must wait for their rights.

Sometimes, the culture pushes forward even when politicians aren't ready for it. Last week, the middle of the country gave mainstream cred to supporting marriage equality. This week, Vermont made equal protection a legislative ideal as much as a judicial one.

If President Obama and his top generals are too busy to take on LGBT issues, then the time is right for someone with the vision and rank to find a contemporary groove on our issues -- someone with a little Orszag touch. And if that person existed already, the statement issued last Friday would not have struck such a discordant note with the vibe of the day.

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Kerry Eleveld