Friday, June 19, 2009

Martin Becoming Machiavelli: The Obama Administration as Failed Marriage

A few end-of-week wrap-up remarks about the growing concern among progressives (including many in the LGBT community) that the Obama administration is not exercising strong leadership in a number of areas, and that its lack of leadership in the area of gay rights exemplifies a lack of leadership in other key fields: Daniel Schultz makes the case at Religion Dispatches that Obama’s “common ground” religious advisors are responsible for the administration’s refusal to engage any issue it regards as a hot-button culture-war issue.

As I noted in a previous discussion of the “common ground” approach, Chip Berlet argues that some of Mr. Obama’s centrist advisors, particularly from faith-based groups, are seeking to frame discussions of key issues in a way that finds common ground with religious adherents to the right of center. Driving this movement to find common ground is a concern to keep independent voters on the administration’s side.

Schultz asks whether the common ground approach is a “terrible idea.” He suggests that the administration’s excessive timidity about engaging the right re: culture-war issues is resulting in a lack of leadership that will undermine its attempts to effect change in many areas. As he concludes,

Independents and even some Republicans are moving toward the Democrats on economic and social questions. Now is not the time to hedge bets. The Obama administration ought to be pressing its advantages and racking up some victories, not hemming and hawing and worrying about who it might lose when the inevitable fight comes.

And I agree. Wholeheartedly. As I’ve argued in posting after posting on this blog, the Obama administration’s handling of gay issues is proving to be paradigmatic for its handling of many other interconnected (since they are all rooted in human rights) issues about which the administration claims to have passionate commitments, from healthcare to financial reform. Joe Sudbay is absolutely correct when he notes at Americablog today,

The Obama administration's response [i.e., to the gay community] has been appalling . . . . Also, many of us were more than willing to cut the new president some slack so he could enact his top priorities, like health care reform. That's turning into a big mess, too. We need the president to lead -- and to remember why people voted for him.

The president’s advisors have given him horrendously bad advice about dealing with gay persons and gay rights. The DOMA brief was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. From the outset, the silence of this administration about promises it had made in this area prior to the election, and about the continuing struggle of LGBT Americans to live with dignity as the administration refused even to provide timelines for fulfilling those promises—and refused even to talk about our human lives and human struggle—began radically to erode its leadership, and the moral claims on which that leadership rests.

For many of us, what had been a moment of great promise when the Obama administration was elected has quickly turned into a nightmare. We have seen continuing discharges of gay soldiers under DADT, though the administration has told us DADT is discriminatory and needs to be abolished. We have heard talk from the administration about how it will be necessary to obtain consensus and legislative action about DADT, when the reality is that the president can abolish this discriminatory prohibition against military service by openly gay personnel with the stroke of a pen today, if he so wishes. And we have had to listen to this talk, along with talk about further studies of this program that the administration has already characterized as discriminatory, when polls indicate that 69% of Americans oppose DADT, and that this strong majority includes conservative and evangelical voters.

The Obama administration made a huge mistake when it decided to play ruthless pragmatic games with gay lives. And that mistake will continue to trouble the administration and undermine its progressive platform, until someone with sufficient clout within the administration to address this mistake begins to do so forthrightly and quickly.

When Stampp Corbin, who co-chaired Obama’s LGBT Leadership Council during the campaign, comes out and says candidly, “President Obama, your legal brief was clearly a mistake, a big mistake,” the administration is obviously in trouble. Mr. Corbin calls on the president we elected with such hope to lead—just lead: “Mr. President make a different choice. Choose to lead.”

And when someone like Andrew Sullivan, who has defended the administration’s careful pragmatism and determination to stay behind the curve as it makes decisions, calls on gay citizens to cut off the DNC’s money, something momentous is underway, a political rebellion by some of the administration’s staunchest supporters.

I hope those who care about this administration’s platform and its success listen and act. I am mystified by the decision to ignore moral imperatives and adopt a stance of ruthless pragmatism, with blowsy, misleading rhetoric about finding common ground, once this administration came into office.

My experience thus far with the new administration reminds me of a story a friend tells about her first, failed marriage. She says, I thought I was marrying Rhett Butler. And then I woke up the morning after the wedding and found I was in bed with Jethro Bodeen.

I feel something similar about the Obama administration. I thought I was casting my vote for Martin. Instead, I seem to have gotten Machiavelli. And I’m now wondering how to get out of the failed marriage, before it does more harm to me.