The power of the presidency and Obama on gay rights

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

17 May 2012


Andrew Sullivan summarises the gains Barack Obama has made for gay rights:

His first step was getting rid of the HIV travel ban, already signed by Bush, but not yet implemented. Again, the process dragged on for months—but the White House insisted it was better to have everything in perfect legal order so the change could not be challenged. It came through.

Then he endured a hazing by gay activists and writers (including me) on his slow pace on gays in the military. But we were wrong. He made the brilliant calculation that he would not push it right away, as Clinton did, and he would not be the front person to advocate the change. Adm. Michael Mullen would do it, backed by Republican Defense Secretary Bob Gates. By bringing the military top brass and Gates slowly on board, he outmaneuvered the Republicans. Even then, he almost ran out of time, but clinched it after the 2010 midterms. He worked our last gay nerves. But when an openly gay solider asked a question at a Republican debate, a photo of a lesbian couple kissing during a Navy homecoming was reprinted around the country, and a Navy veteran asked his Marine boyfriend to marry him in what was the first proposal involving two gay men on a U.S. military base, the sheer scope of the cultural change was astonishing.

On marriage too, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder had already made the critical decision that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional on its face, that discrimination against homosexuals warranted heightened legal scrutiny, and that therefore the administration would no longer defend DOMA in court, as it had in its first two years. In other words, by February 2011, Obama and Holder put the significant weight of the Justice Department behind the constitutional logic of marriage equality. Immediately, the lawyers in the Proposition 8 case in California claimed this as a “material” or legally significant development. It was. And, of course, if discriminating against gays in marriage violates the equal-protection clause, as the Justice Department claims, then DOMA is doomed. And in making that decision, Obama did far more to advance marriage equality substantively than he did in his recent interview. To add icing to the cake, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech for the first time asserting that, for the United States, gay rights were integral to human rights across the globe, and the U.S. would conduct diplomacy accordingly.

This, by any measure, is an astonishing pace of change in one presidential term.

Whether you think Obama's done too much or not enough on this issue, I can't see how these don't count as real and substantive gains. Which is why I don't understand when people claim that Obama hasn't achieved anything in his term or that — in grim echoes of the end of the Clinton years — that it doesn't matter which party is in the White House. This is just one issue, but it's an example of the way elections have a real impact on a nation. I'm the first to tell you the power of the presidency is often overstated, and that even seasoned oberservers too often overlook the significance of Congress and the states, but let there be no mistake about it: the president is the most powerful single political actor in the United States, and who that person is matters.

Tags: Barack Obama, Gay Rights, The Presidency

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