Dead Olive Branch
After seriously pissing off gays and lesbians since practically the day after the election, from choosing Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the Inaugural to making no progress on nearly a dozen initiatives promised during the campaign, from gay marriage to Don't Ask Don't Tell to DOMA to the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, Barack Obama will offer job benefits to federal employees in same-sex relationships as a kind of consolation prize.
President Obama will sign a presidential memorandum on Wednesday to extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, administration officials said Tuesday evening, but he will stop short of pledging full health insurance coverage.
Mr. Obama, in an Oval Office announcement, is expected to offer details about which benefits will be provided. It is the most significant statement he has made on gay issues, and it comes as he faces intense criticism from several gay rights leaders over what they suggest has been a failure to live up to campaign promises in the first months of his presidency.
Mr. Obama will be weighing in for the first time on one of the most delicate social and political issues of the day: whether the government must provide benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. While he will announce a list of benefits, officials said, they are not expected to include broad health insurance coverage, which could require legislation to achieve.
The initial reaction from some gay rights advocates was mixed.
“Extending benefits to partners of gay federal employees is terrific, but at this point he is under enormous pressure from the gay civil rights community for having promised the moon and done nothing so far,” Richard Socarides, an adviser to the Clinton administration on gay issues, said Tuesday evening. “So more important now is what he says tomorrow about the future for gay people during his presidency.”
There's a backstory to this, as the DNC is planning a fundraiser for a lot of well-heeled gays and lesbians and the Human Rights Campaign just pulled out of it, after the Justice Department filed a fairly homophobic brief defending DOMA in district court. This kind of small-ball maneuver will not mend the rift that has opened through months of disappointment with Obama's reticence to meet his promises.
Unfortunately, federal benefits for gay federal employees is not even one of the eight campaign promises Obama made to our community (there are only seven now on the White House Web site - the DOMA promise went down the memory hole about two months ago).
Joe and I have written about this before. We had predicted that Obama would either give us the hate crimes bill or benefits for federal employees as a means of showing how much he's doing on his gay rights promises, without actually doing anything on any of the eight gay rights promises he made. (And guess what? After the DOMA brief controversy exploded, they suddenly announced plans to do hate crimes in the Senate this week. And now, poof, the bill is dead again until at least August. And remember folks, this is the easy one - it already passed the House and Senate, and survived a Senate filibuster, in the last Congress.)
Who is advising the president of the United States on gay issues? This is beyond belief. These people think we're living in 1993, where our number one issue is getting 2% of the gay population working for the federal government to get some of the benefits that straight employees get. Again, it's nice. And if I were kicking back in my Birkenstocks and joining a few friends to watch Melrose Place, I might think this was a huge deal. But it doesn't compare with Obama having promised to repeal DOMA, repeal DADT, and secure passage of ENDA. There is no progress whatsoever on that front, unless you call Obama continuing to discharge gay service members, and filing hideously anti-gay rehashes of George Bush's old homophobic legal briefs, "progress."
I agree with John Aravosis that Obama and his advisors appear stuck in a 1990s mindset, wary of a Clinton-style flameout on a gay rights issue at a time when same-sex marriage has been made legal in six states and most Americans have moved beyond the culture wars. Who exactly is Obama mollifying by not pressing on gay rights issues? Seemingly, a section of the public that will never vote for him anyway.
Furthermore, these benefits are restricted through the Defense of Marriage Act, and thus will be more symbolic and marginal than thorough.
I do agree that gay rights advocates should hold Congress to the same standard as the President, though obviously the man with the bully pulpit has a great deal of influence. Harry Reid told the Advocate that a repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell could happen in this Congress, and he should not only be held to that (it was actually a backtrack from a previous statement that a DADT repeal had no chief sponsor in the Senate), but pushed to do it this year. Reid tried to punt to the President by saying "We would welcome a legislative proposal from the White House on repeal so as to provide clear guidance on what the President would like to see and when." You can see the President punting to Congress (I need legislation) and Congress punting to the President (we need legislative language) forever. Pressure must be maintained on all fronts.