White House Memo
With Gay Issues in View, Obama Pressed to Engage
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
New York Times - May 7, 2009
WASHINGTON — President Obama was noticeably silent last month when the Iowa Supreme Court overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
But now Mr. Obama — who has said he opposes same-sex marriage as a Christian but describes himself as a “fierce advocate of equality” for gay men and lesbians — is under pressure to engage on a variety of gay issues that are coming to the fore amid a dizzying pace of social, political, legal and legislative change.
Two of Mr. Obama’s potential Supreme Court nominees are openly gay; some advocates, irked that there are no gay men or lesbians in his cabinet, are mounting a campaign to influence his choice to replace Justice David H. Souter, who is retiring. Same-sex marriage is advancing in states — the latest to allow it is Maine — and a new flare-up in the District of Columbia could ultimately put the controversy in the lap of the president.
Mr. Obama’s new global health initiative has infuriated activists who say he is not financing AIDS programs generously enough. And while the president has urged Congress to pass a hate crimes bill, a high priority for gay groups, he has delayed action on one of his key campaign promises, repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule.
Social issues like same-sex marriage bring together deeply held principles and flashpoint politics, and many gay activists, aware that Mr. Obama is also dealing with enormous challenges at home and overseas, have counseled patience.
But some are unsettled by what they see as the president’s cautious approach. Many are still seething over his choice of the Rev. Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor who opposes same-sex marriage, to deliver the invocation at his inaugural, and remain suspicious of Mr. Obama’s commitment to their cause.
In the words of David Mixner, a writer, gay activists are beginning to wonder, “How much longer do we give him the benefit of the doubt?” Last weekend, Richard Socarides, who advised President Bill Clinton on gay issues, published an opinion piece in The Washington Post headlined, “Where’s our fierce advocate?”
The White House, aware of the discontent, invited leaders of some prominent gay rights organizations to meet Monday with top officials, including Jim Messina, Mr. Obama’s deputy chief of staff, to plot legislative strategy on the hate crimes bill as well as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Among those attending was Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, who said afterward that while the gay rights agenda might not be “unfolding exactly as we thought,” he was pleased.
“They have a vision,” Mr. Solmonese said. “They have a plan.”
While Mr. Obama has said he is “open to the possibility” that his views on same-sex marriage are misguided, he has offered no signal that he intends to change his position. And as he confronts that and other issues important to gay rights advocates, he faces an array of pressures and risks.
Anything substantive he might say on same-sex marriage — after the Iowa ruling, the White House put out a statement saying the president “respects the decision” — would be endlessly parsed. If Mr. Obama were to embrace same-sex marriage, he would be seen as reversing a campaign position and alienating some moderate and religious voters he has courted.
And if he appoints a gay person to the Supreme Court, he would be viewed by social conservatives — including many black ministers, another of his core constituency groups — as putting a vote for same-sex marriage on the highest court in the land. Two gay women, Kathleen M. Sullivan and Pamela S. Karlan, both of Stanford Law School, have been suggested as potential nominees.
“That would be tantamount to opening the gate for the other side,” said Bishop Harry J. Jackson Jr. of the Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., who is organizing protests in Washington, where the City Council passed an ordinance this week recognizing same-sex marriages in other states. “If he meant what he said about marriage then I think he has got to stand up and be a president who acts on his beliefs.”
Some say change is inevitable, not only for Mr. Obama but also for other Democratic politicians who have embraced civil unions but rejected same-sex marriage. Now that the Iowa ruling has pushed the battle into the nation’s heartland, the issue will inevitably come up during the 2010 midterm elections and the 2012 presidential campaign.
“We’ve elected probably the most pro-gay president in history; he’s very good on the issues but he is not good on gay marriage,” said Steven Elmendorf, a gay Democratic lobbyist. “From the gay community’s perspective, he and a lot of other elected officials are wrong on this. My view is that over time, they’re going to realize they’re wrong and they’re going to change.”
Mr. Obama has chosen a number of openly gay people for prominent jobs, including Fred P. Hochberg as chairman of the Export-Import Bank and John Berry to run the Office of Personnel Management. And he is the first president to set aside tickets for gay families to attend the White House Easter Egg Roll.
But on legislation, allies of Mr. Obama’s are not surprised that he is charting a careful course. In addition to calling for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military, Mr. Obama supports a legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that said states need not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Opponents of same-sex marriage say that is an inconsistency.
Tobias Wolff, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was Mr. Obama’s top campaign adviser on gay rights, said the president needed time to build political consensus.
“I think he has a genuine sense,” Mr. Wolff said, “that in order to move these issues forward you need broader buy-in than you are going to get if you poke a stick in too many people’s eyes.”