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June, 9th 2009

Will Obama be Truman on Gay Rights?

– Liz Mair

That's the title of this article by David Paul Kuhn over at Real Clear Politics, where he notes this, on the subject of Don't Ask Don't Tell, a policy with which I have taken plenty of issue just this year alone (emphasis and edits mine):

During the campaign, Obama pledged to... push for the reversal of the prohibition against gays serving openly in the military, as well as overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages and codified states' rights to also deny gay unions legal in other states. About a half year into his presidency, none of those pledges have been fulfilled.

"The amount of stuff on the president's plate is stacked higher than anyone could have imagined last fall," said one lesbian and gay rights leader privy to White House strategy on gay rights issues. "But," the leader added, "on the other hand, the landscape, like in Iowa and Maine, has shifted faster than anyone had expected. There is a lot of pressure to do what's right--right now."

[...]

A Gallup Poll last week underscored the change in Americans' attitude on gay rights. Three of the voting blocs coolest on gay rights are conservatives, Republicans and weekly churchgoers. About six in 10 of all three blocs now back allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military. That marks a more than double-digit shift against the "don't ask, don't tell" on the political right in the past five years.

In 1993, Bill Clinton backed "don't ask, don't tell" in a controversial compromise. Since the policy went into effect, about 13,000 men and women have been discharged from the armed forces--a trend that has continued under Obama's watch.

No issue draws so clear a comparison to the dawn of the civil rights era than "don't ask, don't tell." In 1948, Truman issued an executive order integrating the armed forces. That same year Gallup found that only 13 percent of Americans supported "having Negro and white troops throughout the U.S. armed services live and work together."

That Obama has not acted on "don't ask, don't tell," despite public support that Truman would have envied, spotlights the delicate political tightrope the president now walks.

Obama is consumed by an historic domestic agenda, ranging from stimulus legislation to health care reform. It's no accident that he has withheld early engagement on the same issue that sidetracked Clinton's first year.

But this is also not 1993. That year, one summer Gallup survey found that Americans were divided on the issue--48 percent supporting the policy and an equal share against. Today, about seven in 10 Americans are against "don't ask, don't tell."

Yet Obama clearly is not itching to enter the culture wars.

Manifestly not, but President Obama seems to be missing a critical point: While poll after poll on abortion shows Americans closely divided over the topic, with about equal numbers saying they are, respectively, pro-choice and pro-life, abortion constitutes a genuine point of contention among the electorate and therefore is an area of policy where "culture war" considerations are real, and where it's obvious that there are political consequences for weighing in and pushing policies that obviously slant in one direction or another.  DADT, however, as Kuhn correctly notes, is a totally different kettle of fish.  Yes, I know there are people in this country who will go to the mat to prevent gays from serving in our armed forces, but there's a big difference between having 50% of the population (or 47, 48 or 49%)  on your side on an issue that people literally view as one of life and death, and having 60% of your opponents on your side on an issue that many of those in the 40% category don't treat with quite the same level of seriousness as they do, say, something that is viewed by a not-insubstantial amount of the population as homicide.  I'm sorry, but there just is.  Obama's a smart guy.  I bet he's better with numbers than I am.  He knows this.

But yet, he does not act.  Yes, there is the excuse alluded to in Kuhn's article, that Obama has so many important things on his plate right now: The economy, health care, etc., etc.  But with all due respect, this is pretty important, too.  When members of the armed services who are prepared to redeploy into conflict zones and who are fluent in the local language (see Dan Choi) are getting the boot because they like boys, not girls (or, though I haven't heard of a recent example, hypothetically, girls, not boys) that's something that at least should give pause for thought where things like national security are concerned-- national security being one of those important things that Obama has on his plate right now.  Separately, of course, there is the matter that Obama put himself out there are a very gay-friendly candidate.  He doesn't exactly look like a gay-friendly President from where I sit, on the DADT count alone-- and that's a problem, not because a must-have criteria of our political leaders is being gay-friendly, but rather because Obama ("No Drama," the "dispositionally conservative" guy, as some in the blogosphere have called him) to my mind isn't looking so much like a guy who's just playing it cool and being smart on this as he does, well, a bit of a wimp.  I said it on CNN.com a couple of weeks ago, and I'll say it again: On this (and other gay-associated issues), Obama is taking a pass.  And I continue to think it's pretty lame, where this subject, specifically, is concerned. Obama doesn't look much like Truman from where I sit. [intro]

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