My first choice of a headline for today's column was "Obama's Gay Honeymoon Over," but then I thought better of it. President Obama is currently trying to placate a group of supporters who are not in a mood to be impressed right now with mere incrementalism. Gay rights supporters, quite rightly, are now asking Obama point-blank: "When are you going to make good on all those promises you made to us on the campaign trail? How long are we supposed to wait?"
Barack Obama, while campaigning, made some pretty concrete promises to this group. Lane Hudson of the Huffington Post digs out Obama's own words to gay rights activists, which show how specific Obama was in saying what he would do. Obama was for repealing the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA), repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) in the military, and (in his own words) promised to: "use the bully pulpit to urge states to treat same-sex couples with full equality in their family and adoption laws."
That was then. This is now, and some gay rights leaders are expressing their anger that Obama has done virtually none of that, and that Obama is even moving backwards on some of their issues (like using offensive language to defend DOMA in court). This is on top of a mixed bag of symbolic outreach both to gay rights groups (for photo-ops, such as including a gay group in the Inaugural Parade, or the White House Easter Egg Roll) and those against gay rights (Rick Warren speaking at the Inauguration itself).
But all of a sudden, not just a photo-op, but an actual fundraiser is in jeopardy. The Democratic National Committee scheduled a fundraiser (during Gay Pride Month) for next week. And after the latest disappointment from Obama (the brief filed in the DOMA case), people are apparently deciding that now isn't really the time they feel like writing checks for the party cause.
Because of this impending snub, President Obama decided it was time to act. So today he rolled out a very lukewarm expansion of benefits to gay federal employees. This was seen as pretty insulting to some, which is why this issue will likely even more contentious in the next week (leading up to the fundraiser). John Aravosis, writing in Salon, sums this attitude up nicely:
Tonight, President Fierce will try to make amends by signing either a memorandum, a directive or an executive order, directing some federal agencies, but not others, to provide some benefits, but not others, to some gay federal employees, but not others, at some undisclosed time in the future. (And the benefits may reportedly go away when Obama leaves office.)
First problem, federal agencies already have the right to provide these benefits to gay employees -- and several, including at least one DOD agency, do. Second problem, the administration canâ€™t tell us exactly which benefits theyâ€™re talking about and for which employees. Thatâ€™s because this was all hastily thrown together after the incestuous and pedophilic gays nearly brought down a Democratic National Committee gay pride fundraiser scheduled for next week. A gay blogger got hold of the eventâ€™s guest list and published it, and once D.C.â€™s gay paper, the Washington Blade, announced that it would be staking out the entrance to the event with camera and video, the $1,000 a head attendees started dropping like flies.
In other words, the only reason we're getting anything: The gay ATM ran dry.
They've got a point. Nobody likes feeling used, or feeling like they're just getting lip service when they were promised real change.
Obama, of course, is walking a tightrope here. He definitely learned from Bill Clinton the mistake of doing anything on a contentious issues like this too early (in fact, it was the same issue, which is how we got DADT in the first place). But that excuse has pretty much reached its expiration date for Obama. Because the political reality is that -- especially for contentious issues -- there is a very small window for presidents to get things done. This is conventional wisdom in Washington, and although it may not be one hundred percent true, there a lot of truth to it. Presidents get one year, basically, to get anything done.
Because next year is midterm election season. With every member of the House and a third of the Senate up for re-election, politicians become timid about handing their opponents issues to beat them up with in television ads. In other words, not much gets done. And certainly not a lot of "hot button" issues will be tackled.
The year after this, presidents start their own re-election campaigning. If they have gone against odds and picked up seats in Congress, then they may have a second shot at big issues. But usually midterms offer a mixed result at best, and at worst a loss of seats in one or both houses. Meaning most presidents start looking to the middle of the road at this point.
And the fourth year of a first-term presidency is campaign fever, where not much gets done at all due to everyone playing politics all the time.
In other words, while things can get done in the final three years of a presidency, it's rare -- usually change (especially when it's a big change) happens during the first year of a presidency. And Obama is approaching the halfway point to his first year.
John Aravosis makes this point much more succinctly:
When, Mr. President, will be a good time to set my people free? When will the leader of the free world get a breather, a presidential timeout as it were? (And I thought this was the administration that could walk and chew gum at the same time.) Are we really to believe that 2010, a congressional election year, will be any more timely than today? Or 2011, the beginning of the presidential primaries? Or 2012, with a congressional and presidential election? There is quite literally no time like the present.
Gay rights is not the only issue on which Obama's voice has been conspicuous in its absence. There are other groups in the Democratic base that are beginning to wonder the same thing: "When, exactly, can we expect to see that change you promised us?" And while it is true that Obama has had a lot on his plate so far, and has dealt with (and is dealing with) gargantuan issues that have been festering for years, these issue-advocacy groups know that the more time that goes by without presidential action (or even public support) for their issues, the less likely it is that anything is going to get done on them.
This frustration is natural, and at some point in the first months of a president's first term, the honeymoon with the public usually comes to an end. But Obama is a victim of his own oratory power. People really did believe all that change he was selling. And, while the gay rights issue is currently boiling over in public, it is not the only issue on which people are beginning to wonder when all that change is going to appear. As more and more groups start asking "If not now, when?" Obama is going to have to start actually delivering more of that change we can believe in, or else we're all going to stop believing... and more importantly (to the political classes) -- stop donating.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant