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Susan Estrich: Obama Falters On Gay Rights

The president vowed to abolish the policy of discharging soldiers based on sexual orientation, but he has taken no steps to do so

Rep. Barney Frank, the first member of Congress to be re-elected after coming out, is right in telling gays not to abandon the president. As Frank put it, “The notion that if someone doesn’t agree with you 100 percent, then you shouldn’t be supportive of him — vs. someone who disagrees with you 100 percent — is very bad politics.” But it’s hard not to share the disappointment of gay activists who worked so hard to elect this president and now feel sufficiently frustrated that at least a handful publicly withdrew their support for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser this week featuring the vice president.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich

Since President Obama took office, more than 250 men and women who volunteered to serve in the military and were doing so honorably have been discharged for no reason other than their sexual orientation. Although the president vowed to get rid of that policy, he has taken no steps to do so, frustrating those who expected a moratorium on discharges if not an outright change of policy.

Then, recently, the Justice Department filed a brief that could have come from the Bush administration, defending the law that bars recognition of gay marriages by the federal government and allows other states to refuse to recognize them, as well. While the White House claimed the administration had no choice but to defend a law that it believes ought to be repealed, many viewed the inclusion of incest as a justification for the law as both unnecessary and insulting.

So last week, the president extended what was portrayed as an olive branch — or crumbs — to his gay supporters, and directed federal agencies that don’t already do so to provide domestic partners access to certain limited federal benefits, specifically not including health insurance. “It’s a matter of fairness,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

To be sure. But so is the right to serve in the military. So is the right to form a legally recognized relationship with a partner. And so, it should be clear to this of all administrations, is access to health care.

This week, the administration is launching a campaign to provide health care access to all Americans. Last week, it justified denying such access to gay partners of federal workers?

All of these things require congressional action, as the president’s defenders have pointed out. So what? Since when has this Congress turned the president down? Surely the bailout and the budget were a little tougher than extending health care benefits to domestic partners, but the administration took those on without missing a beat. It’s about to take on health care for everybody. Is health care for domestic partners of federal workers so complex and politically fraught as to be beyond the skills of the legislative whizzes of the Obama administration? I think not.

My guess is that, off the record, the White House would tell me that the last thing they want to do, precisely because of other critical legislative priorities, is give the Rush Limbaughs of the world an issue such as gay marriage or gays in the military to use against the president. I’m certainly old enough to remember when that happened to Bill Clinton in the early days of his administration.

But not only is Obama in a better position in terms of polls and congressional control than Clinton was, but the issues have changed in 16 years. The country has changed. And the president who promised change needs to recognize that.

Gays should not abandon the president, but all of us should keep pushing him. It is a matter of fairness.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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