Sunday, May 3, 2009

The First 100 Days: Mr. Obama, Gay Rights, and the Challenge of Leadership

With the celebration of Mr. Obama’s first 100 days in office, there’s a lot of talk in the gay community about his failure to deliver on the promises he made about gay rights prior to the election. Writing in yesterday’s Washington Post (here), Richard Socarides, who served as a special assistant to President Clinton and advised him on gay issues, points to the discrepancy between Obama’s pre-election statement that he is a fierce advocate of gay equality, and his behavior now that he’s president:

In December, while trying to quiet the furor over his invitation of Rick Warren to take part in his inauguration, Barack Obama reminded us that he had been a "consistent" and "fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans." But at the end of its first 100 days, his administration has been neither.

In Socarides’s view, what makes Obama’s silence on gay issues perplexing is that significant cultural developments nationwide point to this as a moment in which increasing numbers of Americans want progressive change in this area. By remaining silent, by ignoring a growing mandate for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in American culture, with full recognition of the human rights of gays and lesbians—Mr. Obama undercuts himself as a leader, as a president driven by a commitment to change that is good, to progressive change that serves the common good:

What makes this [Obama’s post-election silence on gay issues] especially disappointing is that it comes during a crisis-driven "change moment" in our country's history that not only cries out for leadership but presents a particularly good climate for making substantial progress on gay equality.

As Socarides notes, following Obama’s election (and directly related to the sense of optimism and thirst for progressive change the election released), we’ve seen state after state move towards gay marriage, a revival of youth interest and involvement in politics, and a renewed belief in the ability of our nation to build a truly participatory democracy after we’ve elected the first African-American president.

The time to act would appear to be now. And that makes Obama’s silence about gay issues and his refusal to move forward with his civil rights agenda for gay Americans hard to understand.

Socarides points, in particular, to the new president’s reversal of his campaign promises that he would quickly end the military don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Within a brief period of time following his election, his administration began to say that the matter would now have to be “studied,” and the unambiguous commitment to a quick end to this discriminatory policy seems to have shifted to a “study” mode that places this necessary move to simple justice on the dim, far horizon.

Socarides asks whether Mr. Obama is being advised to go slowly, to move incrementally, regarding don’t ask, don’t tell and other gay issues, in order to avoid the trap into which Mr. Clinton fell when he tried to abolish ban on gays in the military. If so, Socarides thinks, he is being misadvised, because he is unlikely to have the high degree of political capital he has now at any later point in his administration, and that high degree of political capital points to the need to fulfill the don’t ask, don’t tell promise now:

This is a bad strategy. President Obama will never have more political capital than he has now, and there will never be a better political environment to capitalize on. People are distracted by the economy and war, and they are unlikely to get stirred up by the right-wing rhetoric that has doomed efforts in the past.

Pam Spaulding and John Aravosis both comment on Socarides’s article this weekend. With her usual acumen and moral forcefulness, Pam Spaulding gets right to the heart of the matter (here): the new president is a liberal who is willing to court the gay community when he needs votes, but once empowered, he becomes what such liberals all too often become—a “wait-and-see” incrementalist unwilling to challenge the status quo when there might be a price to pay in doing so:

To answer the question -- the president is hiding in the closet. It's a familiar diseased closet inhabited by many self-proclaimed allies, particularly non-LGBT progressives, who talk the talk, but don't walk the walk. It's always "wait, we need more time" and "we have this or that priority" or "we need to get re-elected" as an excuse for inaction.

John Aravosis is willing to cut the new president a bit more slack (here), since he believes that some of the waiting and seeing has to with valuable pragmatic calculations about how far Mr. Obama can carry his agenda of change. Still, Aravosis agrees with Socarides that the political climate has never been more favorable to a president seeking to implement progressive changes for gay Americans. Now is the time to act, even if that action needs to be taken deliberately and with careful forethought.

Aravosis applies this analysis to the gays in the military issue. He argues that Clinton failed not because he tried, but because he did not think through the issue in advance and lay a foundation for the success of a new policy:

While I still think Obama needs to tread very carefully on any gay rights advances, lest he repeat the mistakes of Bill Clinton's gays in the military debacle, he also needs to remember that Clinton's mistake wasn't trying to help the gays. It was doing it without a well thought out plan for success.

I agree that the gays in the military issue is perhaps the neuralgic issue facing the new president, if he intends to make good on any of his pre-campaign promises regarding gay rights. I don’t agree, however, that Mr. Clinton’s fundamental mistake in that area was failing to study the issue in advance, or to develop a careful plan for the change he sought to make.

I have always thought that Clinton’s fundamental mistake with gays in the military was his lack of moral fortitude, once he found himself challenged. When he stepped back from his commitment to the gay community in this and subsequently most other areas early in his presidency, he so radically undermined himself as a leader, in my view, that he lost the ability to lead the nation boldly and successfully in his period as president.

This is precisely what I was getting at, when I blogged, on the eve of the 100-day anniversary of Obama’s assumption of office, about Lyndon Baines Johnson and the civil rights movement (here). “Hell. What’s the presidency for?” LBJ responded, when he began his term as president and was advised to move slowly, incrementally, with baby steps and much study, to enact civil rights for African Americans.

Hell. What’s the presidency for? Is it to commission studies of what has already been studied and studied, when we all know what is right to do? Is it to talk in vague abstractions about justice and love , when we refuse to give justice and love to an entire group of human beings?

Richard Socarides is right to frame the discussion of Obama’s inaction on gay rights as a leadership challenge. He is right to note that the generally positive reaction to his election compels Mr. Obama to address the question of how to lead the nation now. Again,

What makes this [Obama’s post-election silence on gay issues] especially disappointing is that it comes during a crisis-driven "change moment" in our country's history that not only cries out for leadership but presents a particularly good climate for making substantial progress on gay equality.

I have very high hopes for Mr. Obama as president. I am encouraged by the positive developments that have occurred in the area of gay rights following his election, developments obviously flowing from the sense of progressive change and democratic hope released by the election.

At the same time, I would argue that these developments point to the need for leadership by Mr. Obama in these areas. It is wonderful that the Matthew Shepard act seems to be on its way to a successful vote in the Senate, though I found Mr. Obama’s brief recognition of this event on the eve of the House vote discouraging—a manifestation not of strong leadership and commitment, but of political calculation driven by fear of paying a price for doing what is right.

The unanimous decision of the Iowa Supreme Court to strike down barriers to marriage of same-sex couples in that state is a very positive sign of change for the better in this nation, and one clearly connected to Obama’s election. I found his faint, ambiguous statement about this historic decision disappointing in the extreme—an abdication, rather than a positive expression, of leadership.

Leadership is all about moral fortitude. It is about making a way possible when no way seems to exist. It is also about challenging those who seek unjustly to harm and diminish others, even when those inflicting damage on others are powerful. It is about empowering new alliances of those committed to a different way of living that thwarts the ability of the powerful to lord it over the powerless.

Leadership is about making promises and keeping them. It is about being true to one's word. It is about doing what is right because it is right, not because it is expedient. It is about paying a price when doing what is right demands a price.

Mr. Obama has shown splendid promise in this early period of his presidency. The nation is clearly responding positively to that promise, though a powerful minority of Americans who would prefer to block positive change at all cost have also been empowered by the election, and will do all they can to tear down rather than to build with the rest of us.

This is a time in which we need a leader. Leaders demonstrate their ability to lead by laying hold of those issues and problems that most demand attention when they assume their leadership roles.

The longstanding exclusion of gay and lesbian Americans from the full range of human rights in America, and the demigration of gay and lesbian Americans by those who find themselves unchecked by law as they engage in that denigration, are serious problems demanding serious attention. Given the chance to address similar dynamics with the Africh-American community when he rose to power, Lyndon Baines Johnson refused to listen to incrementalist advisors.

He did what was right. And he led, as a result.

I call on Mr. Obama to face the civil rights challenge of his own presidency with a similar commitment to doing what is right. Therein lies the way to real leadership.