President Obama said absolutely nothing new about his stance on same-sex marriage to the 600-plus donors assembled at Thursday night’s annual LGBT Leadership Council Gala in New York City. Many of those who paid between $1,125 and $38,500 to fill his 2012 war chest had hoped he might, buoyed by recent stories about his “evolving” stance on marriage equality. Certainly the gala offered the perfect opportunity for Obama to at least throw his support behind the same-sex marriage bill currently working its way through Albany.
But none of that happened. Instead Obama, reading from a script that might as well have come from 2008, offered up a straight diet of the same ringing but empty “inspirational” rhetoric that has begun to wear thin with so many of his progressive supporters.
The audience didn’t begin to become restless until it became evident that Obama would punt. Midway through his speech, lines like, “I believed discriminating against people was wrong. I had no choice. I was born that way,” still had the audience laughing and applauding in anticipation of the Big Moment. And when, a few lines later, he said, “I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country,” most of the room rose to its feet.
But when Obama veered sharply from there to begin listing many of the same small, easily rescinded accomplishments the administration has been touting for months, followed by a disquisition on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and states’ rights (in reference to Albany), cries for “Marriage!” built. An unfazed Obama finished up with a plea for the audience’s time and energy—and most of all, money.
Then, right on cue, the lights came up and the man who had promised to be a “fierce advocate” for LGBT rights was gone, leaving behind the message that if only his audience would be polite and patient for another four years, and write a lot of checks, some unspecified something or other good might happen for them.
If Thursday night’s performance is any indication, this president, left to his own devices and with a pocketful of LGBT checks, does not appear to share our sense of urgency.
Thursday night’s performance came no surprise to Paul Yandura, who served as the founding director of the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council, and watched a YouTube video of the event from home. He characterizes President Obama, like President Clinton before him, as strategically expending as little political capital on behalf of LGBT people as he thinks necessary in exchange for optimal LGBT cash, votes, volunteer hours, and adulation.
Yandura adds that most LGBT people, from then through now, have been far too willing to donate heavily while accepting fairly low returns on our investment. Instead, we’ve readily accepted a lot of half-baked explanations about how grateful we should be for a president who so much as acknowledges us—what blogger John Aravosis refers to as “the nerd who is thrilled when the big hunky jock looks at him” syndrome.
In light of that dynamic, it’s important for LGBT people to remember that the accomplishment that always heads Obama’s list—the repeal of DADT—happened not because folks were content with the occasional wink, but because groups like Netroots and GetEQUAL spurred him into action. The president had been planning to wait until 2011 to push for repeal. But Lt. Dan Choi, the openly gay Iraq War veteran who became the public face of opposition to the policy, changed the game in March 2010 by chaining himself to the White House fence and getting major media pickup. There was yet more coverage the next month, when another GetEQUAL activist heckled Obama’s inaction on DADT at a fundraiser for Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA).
And that’s when things began to shift. According to GetEQUAL’s cofounder, Robin McGehee, a reporter from the White House pool emailed her immediately after the Boxer incident to say, “DADT hasn’t even been on this president’s radar, but now it’s the only thing he’s talking about.”
Perhaps the time has come for the marriage equivalent of the DADT actions. Because if Thursday night’s performance is any indication, this president, left to his own devices and with a pocketful of LGBT checks, does not appear to share our sense of urgency.