Friday, December 30, 2011

Trying to Resist an Awful Pun
(See if you can guess what it is; answer at the end of the post.)

I was talking with a colleague recently, a woman in a same-sex marriage, about the election next year and Obama's record. She said she planned to enthusiastically support him even though she wishes he'd done more to advance gay rights. I agreed on both counts, but added that civil rights aren't for him to give, but for her (or any unjustly denied constituency) to take.

Was thinking about that again just now when I came across this article about the president's position on gay rights heading into the 2012 race:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an audience of diplomats in Geneva this month that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” And in an interview in November, Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, said that he was “proud” to support the right of same-sex couples to marry.

The president enthusiastically endorsed Mrs. Clinton’s message, issuing a presidential memorandum directing all federal agencies to promote gay rights overseas. And while he said nothing publicly about Mr. Donovan’s declaration — which went further than Mr. Obama’s own position on the issue — a senior administration official said that Mr. Donovan enjoyed “the trust and respect of the president.”

Mr. Obama’s strategy, administration officials and gay-rights advocates said, reflects two conflicting forces. He recognizes that support for gay rights and same-sex marriage is growing, particularly among young voters.

But he is reluctant in an election year to be drawn into a culture-war issue — one that reliably helps Republicans turn out evangelical voters in their favor and that also strikes a particular nerve with religious black voters, a bedrock Obama constituency in battleground states like North Carolina and Florida.

The original basis of my support for Obama during the 2007-2008 campaign cycle was a hunch I had that, like great past presidents, he had a compelling vision for where he wished the country to go on certain issues; a clear sense of where it was at the moment; and an idea of how to move it in the direction he supported. At various times on various issues, I've had reason to doubt not just the overall concept here, but all three components of it. On this one, though, I wonder if maybe the paradigm actually holds.

There's just no way I believe that Obama really doesn't support fully equal rights for same-sex Americans. The circumstances of his upbringing, the political circles in which he came of age, the totality of his known views about social justice and the grounds to be at least somewhat skeptical of his Christianity--by which I do NOT mean that he's a "secret Muslim," but rather that he embraced churchgoing for social and political reasons at least as much as from personal epiphany--add up to a very strong case. But while the trend is unmistakably positive, any lead of a (small-c) conservative temperament would be aware of the dangers inherent to pushing too hard, too fast. Thus it's politically logical, if not particularly admirable, for Obama to maintain this pretense of his views "evolving"--and to let the New Yorkers, Clinton and Donovan, walk point and convey the message to a deep-pocketed and increasingly powerful constituency.

Another point, which is actually very consistent with Obama's conduct through the first three years of his presidency: his personal views don't really matter! He can't issue an executive order mandating marriage equality. He has the bully pulpit, and in that sense his public statement might have some positive impact--but it also would additionally politicize an argument that really should transcend partisan battles. Remember that marriage equality passed in New York only because a small number of Republican state senators went along with it. Of course, they had numerous pragmatic reasons to do so--log-rolling by Gov. Cuomo, campaign contributions from Mayor Bloomberg--in addition to whatever part principle played. But if taking that stance would have put them on the side of a president hated by many if not most Republicans, it's very possible at least one or two of those Republicans would have declined to do so.

At the same time, I think Obama only can get away with this coy posture because he's already delivered on some major if lesser points: the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the non-defense of the abhorrent Defense of Marriage Act. And while I don't know for sure, I think he's also solid on the one function of the presidency most consequential to his personal views on equal rights: judicial appointments. There are larger problems here, especially the slow pace of nominations, but I'd be very surprised if even one Obama nominee to a judgeship is positively known to be hostile to equality. The progress might be slow, but it's sure.

(The bad pun? "Leading from behind," of course.)


The Navigator said...

I seem to recall that you're one of many who have called for leadership from the front - for Obama to use his influence to move the country and seek to sway public opinion, rather than just chasing it. I've been deeply skeptical of the utility of that kind of leadership, but I try to remind myself not to dismiss it - it's a possibility that is very important to keep in mind when considering politics and judging politicians. You're right to think that it's hard to make progress on an issue without prominent leaders willing to spend political capital to fight for that progress.

This post makes a good case that Obama is playing it right with gay rights by leading from behind, but it's also grounds to doubt the efficacy of leading from the front. I think it's quite true that the president risks heightening the political stakes by involving himself in any given dispute, and that the right side stands a better chance of winning if Obama doesn't explicitly identify himself with their cause - yet, this hyper-partisan intensity also adds another dimension of difficulty to any efforts by Obama to lead the nation where he wants to go.

David said...

I agree with this. As with the "super-committee" fiasco and the criticism from Republicans that Obama "failed to lead," it's important to remember that when you have about half the country and the vast majority of the elected opposition primed to reflexively oppose whatever the president is for, "presidential leadership" can further bog some causes down rather than push them forward.