Thursday, May 10, 2012

How significant is Obama's change of position on same-sex marriage?

My basic thought is that having the President explicit endorse the notion of same-sex marriage as legitimate and even a right is very significant. It gives the idea greater respectability than it has previously had in American politics and in public opinion generally.

But I've long since become enthusiasm-shy about Obama's statement. I was very encouraged by his unambiguous declaration when he took office that the Guantánamo Gulag would be closed within a year. But it's still open.

I was glad to hear him defend Social Security and Medicare on the campaign trail. Then he appointed the Catfood Commission whose co-chairman (Simpson-Bowles) recommended cutting them and he offered major cuts in benefits as part of the horrible fiasco that the debt-ceiling vote last year became.

I was inspired when he called the Citizens United ruling a threat to democracy itself and scolded the Supreme Court to their faces at a State of the Union address over the ruling. Have you heard the President even talking about Citizens United, the ruling that he said was a threat to our democratic form of government, in the last few months?

I agree with Robert Scheer's conclusion in his column, Hope and Hesitation in Obama's Sudden Conversion TruthDig 05/10/2012:

The good news is that young voters have returned to the sanity of the nation’s Founders and are unwelcoming of the government's imposing its will on their pursuit of happiness. Surely Obama was mindful that the gay marriage issue is trending sharply in that direction, and certainly his response is a reason for optimism among those fighting against second-class citizenship for gays.

A prediction that Obama's shift will lead to deep and lasting change for the nation was offered by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an equally skilled political trend spotter: "No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people, and I have no doubt that this will be no exception." From the mayor’s lips to God's ears.
Yet as Sam Stein notes in Obama Same-Sex Marriage Position: Why He Made His Decision Huffington Post 05/09/2012:

The senior administration officials declined to say whether the president would now push for gay marriage to be part of the Democratic Party's platform at the convention. They also said they were not changing positions on an Executive Order that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation against federal contractors. The president has said he would not sign that order.

As for the politics of the matter, the senior administration officials cautioned that it was too early to read into the electoral fallout. They noted that public opinion had changed faster on this issue than on any other they had followed in their own political careers. And they noted that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's viewpoint –- that the Constitution should contain an amendment asserting that marriage is between a man and a woman -- was quite unpopular. [my emphasis]
It's annoying as always to see Stein giving anonymity to "senior administration officials" for his he's obviously just doing stenography here. But it's informative that the "senior administration officials" wanted his stenography to include the reassurance that Obama wasn't intended to do anything new policy-wise on this issue.

David Dayen focuses on the anti-discrimination Executive Order issue in Despite Marriage Equality Shift, Obama Still Won’t Sign LGBT Anti-Discrimination Executive Order FDL News 05/10/2012: "Keep in mind that the boycott by LGBT donors had nothing to do with the President’s position on marriage equality. It was because of the executive order."

David is right to speculate that Obama hopes that his base, including LGBT donors, will be so pleased over the President words they won't give him too much static over his deeds, or lack thereof.

Of course, Obama did end the don't-ask-don't-tell policy for the military, and that is an actual positive accomplishment. And his Justice Department matched its unwillingness to prosecute wealthy bankers for misdeeds that caused the crash of 2007-8 with an unwillingness to legally defend the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA), and that's also an important and substantive move. Those are very different actions that what President Maverick McCain would have taken.

All that said, David is making a valid point here:

It’s a weird thing to hold out on. Nobody doubts that the President could do this tomorrow with the stroke of a pen. It would not change in any way the need for legislation like ENDA to ensure protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace, but it wouldn’t inhibit it either. During the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal, the Administration and the Defense Department passed a number of executive orders and administrative rule changes to limit the damage from DADT. That had no impact on the repeal process. The idea that a lasting piece of legislation would be needed to ensure workplace protections for gays and lesbians is not a good excuse here. The point is that nobody doubts this is within the President’s power, he’s already made himself more than clear that he’s on the side of greater equality and civil rights, and yet the Administration just doesn’t want to perform this gesture, which would add protections for untold thousands of gay and lesbian Americans. Is the political risk of offending swing-state voters in North Carolina less potent than the risk of offending federal contractors who would not be allowed to fire somebody because they are gay? Is that the point here?
Scheer also complains about the Executive Order issue:

There is enormous condescension in Obama’s assertion that “I’ve always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally.” He had not been adamant enough to push for an amendment to the Civil Rights Act to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nor did he issue an executive order banning government agencies from contracting with businesses guilty of such discrimination.
Still, it should give a bump to the fundraising take at George Clooney's $40K-per-plate dinner tonight. (Rebecca Keegan, George Clooney's Obama fundraiser uses star power with a twist Los Angeles Times 05/10/2012)

Joe Conason, looking at the Republican side, also in TruthDig, tells us about a recent incident with Romney and a conservative gay staffer being forced out (What the China Crisis (and His Gay Crisis) Revealed About Mitt 05/10/2012):

... Romney revealed another potential weakness when he let religious right activists bully his campaign over its hiring of an openly gay foreign policy staffer, Richard Grenell. After the campaign froze him out of press briefings to quell the controversy, Grenell finally quit on Tuesday, with no effort by the presumptive nominee to persuade him to stay. If Grenell was qualified to hold the sensitive post of foreign policy spokesman, why did Romney cave instantly to demands from radio hosts and other ignorant bigots to let him go? ...

Meanwhile, his longtime critics on the far right are laughing at Romney. Bryan Fischer, right-wing extremist and leader of the American Family Association, openly gloated: "Let me ask you this question, people have raised this question," he said Friday on his radio show. "If Mitt Romney can be pushed around, intimidated, coerced, co-opted by a conservative radio talk show host in Middle America, then how is he going to stand up to the Chinese? How is he going to stand up to Putin? How is he going to stand up to North Korea if he can be pushed around by a yokel like me?"
And we can expect some hysteria and hate-mongering from the Republican side on this issue, as usual. For instance, Mike and Trisha Fox write for conservative/evangelical Christian Post about how The War on Marriage Is On! 05/10/2012. In the scary alternative universe in which the Foxes live, or in which they want their readers to feel like they are living, "this is truly the last day and our last chance to rise up and speak out against the tyranny of the war against God, His people and true Christian morals and values."

In other news, gray space aliens with big eyes have decided that Obama's announcement has made this the moment to launch their final invasion and occupation of Earth.

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