Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Does Barack Obama actually believe in anything?

Posted by Kevin on May 28, 2009

“But I have a sickeningly familiar feeling in my stomach, and the feeling deepens with every interaction with the Obama team on [LGBT] issues. They want them to go away. They want us to go away. …

…the overwhelming sense – apart from a terror of saying anything about gay people on the record – is that we are in the same spot as in every Democratic administration: the well-paid leaders of the established groups get jobs and invites, and that’s about it.” –Andrew Sullivan

It’s pretty hard to defend Obama’s inaction on gay rights issues, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. Reader tiradefaction recently sent me this article on the subject by Emma Ruby-Sachs entitled Obama’s Public Opinion on Gay Marriage Doesn’t Matter. From the article:

“I would love to see Obama stand up and say that LGBT Americans deserve equal rights in all areas of the law – something he stated publicly many times before he was President and a sentiment he has now retracted. After all the time spent campaigning for Obama, my own little heartbreak would be mended if Obama would tell the entire country that people like me are worthy of full rights.

But as a political junkie not only do I know that won’t happen, but I don’t care if it does.

I believe that Obama’s public opinion on gay marriage is particularly irrelevant. As well, any public statements made by his office, while comforting, will not translate into actual gains for our movement.

So excuse me for adhering to real politik here, but our focus should not be on whether or not Obama is commenting on Iowa marriage decisions or making public statements about UAFA. They are not the kind of actions that will win this fight.”

Instead, Ruby-Sachs says, we should “pressure members of Congress to stand up and publicly support gay rights issues. Those votes, those individuals, are the ones that matter. They can attain critical mass, can change the accepted discourse in the U.S. and lead to easy votes on equal rights legislation.”

She’s right to an extent. The president isn’t singularly important, and we do need to be pressuring Congress (leaving aside the issue of whether certain segments of the LGBT movement are actually willing to pressure any Democrat, let alone the president). But I still have serious reservations about the article.

First of all, she’s trying to have it both ways. Obama’s cool if he stands up for gay rights, but even if he doesn’t that’s still okay. One frequently sees this among Obama lovers: there’s no way he can possibly screw up in their eyes. Taken to extremes, it can become a quasi-religious “Obama works in mysterious ways” argument, wherein every disappointing action is taken to be part of some super-secret plan to do the exact opposite of what he appears to be doing – like the claim from some quarters that the real reason Obama has embraced many of Bush’s legal justifications for state secrecy is because he’s actually hoping the courts rule against him.

Or, in many other cases people just change what they think to be in line with who they’re supporting – as Ruby-Sachs is possibly doing with Obama on LGBT issues. An example of this line of thought can be found in the response of the Obama lovers to his flip-flop on releasing torture photos, for which they’re now scrambling to provide excuses. Glenn Greenwald had an important question for these people:

“…if you actually want to argue that concealing these photographs is the right thing to do, then you must have been criticizing Obama when, two weeks ago, he announced that he would release them. Otherwise, it’s pretty clear that you don’t have any actual beliefs other than: “I support what Obama does because it’s Obama who does it.” So for those arguing today that concealing these photographs is the right thing to do: were you criticizing Obama two weeks ago for announcing he would release these photographs?”

Likewise, Ruby-Sachs says she “would love to see Obama stand up and say that LGBT Americans deserve equal rights in all areas of the law,” and then promptly turns right around and says it’s fine that he hasn’t. Does anyone really think that if Obama did start publicly supporting gay rights, she’d say, “Maybe it’d be better if he stayed quiet on the issue”? There are much worse offenders than her (she at least recognizes the need to apply pressure to Obama), but still, cognitive dissonance anyone?

As to the main point of her article, that Obama’s opinions and actions are “irrelevant” and “will not translate into actual gains for our movement,” I totally disagree. While the president may not be able to push legislation though by himself, there’s still quite a bit he could be doing. For one thing, Ruby-Sachs rightly alludes to backroom arm-twisting Obama could be doing to advance legislation, although she makes no apparent attempt to explain why he isn’t doing that already.

Presidents play a major role in framing the debate and defining the “conventional wisdom.” If the president isn’t engaged in an issue, much of the media will take that as a sign that it’s not important, and many Democrats in Congress will be less willing to stick their necks out for fear no one will be there to keep their heads from getting chopped off. Frank Rich of the New York Times commented recently on a significant factor holding back the Democrats on LGBT issues:

“As [Freedom to Marry executive director Evan] Wolfson said to me last week, they lack ‘a towering national figure to make the moral case’ for full gay civil rights. There’s no one of that stature in Congress now that Ted Kennedy has been sidelined by illness, and the president shows no signs so far of following the example of L.B.J., who championed black civil rights even though he knew it would cost his own party the South…

‘This is a civil rights moment,’ Wolfson said, ‘and Obama has not yet risen to it.’ Worse, Obama’s opposition to same-sex marriage is now giving cover to every hard-core opponent of gay rights, from the Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean to the former Washington mayor Marion Barry, each of whom can claim with nominal justification to share the president’s views.”

LGBT-friendly legislation is much more likely to pass if a president, especially one as (inexplicably) popular as Obama, keeps it from being moved to the back burner. This is especially the case on the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. It’s clear that at best repeal of DADT is a low priority for the Obama administration, and as Kerry Eleveld reported in The Advocate, there are signs that they might not follow through with it. This is a problem, because as Eleveld notes:

“Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of SLDN, indicated that a bill was unlikely to be introduced without support from the president. ‘Congress will likely not act without a nod from the commander in chief. Congress often defers military personnel matters to him. And Obama is the ultimate enforcer of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’’ he said.

A Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity pressed the point a little harder: ‘No one wants to push this without the backing of the White House,’ he said.”

DADT is also one of the few areas of LGBT policy where Obama could take concrete action himself, without waiting for legislation from Congress. Granted, a repeal from Congress would be necessary in the long-term. But Aaron Belkin argues at The Huffington Post that Obama could de facto kill DADT with an executive order. So… why doesn’t he? Instead, he’s choosing to fire Arab linguists, while writing notes to the fired soldiers about how upset he is with doing it, even though he hasn’t done anything to stop it.

And this brings me to my last issue with Ruby-Sachs’ article. Even if I were to concede her point that public statements from Obama “will not translate into actual gains for our movement,” I’d still argue that it would be nice to know for once that Obama actually believes strongly in something, actually has a backbone and is willing to take a stand for something or someone. I’m not being hyperbolic; I’m really not sure. You have to admit that Obama isn’t exactly the most courageous politician out there (although that’s probably something a good chunk of his supporters like about him; it would seem that one person’s doublespeak is another person’s political realism).

On the contrary, there doesn’t seem to be much that he isn’t willing to sacrifice for the sake of political expediency. He appears completely opposed to radically restructuring the system, and definitely isn’t willing to take risks to do so. In fact, one of the few things he’s showed any degree of backbone on is handing the treasury over to Wall Street in the form of bailouts, standing up for neoliberal economic policies in the face of widespread public opposition.

On issue after issue, including LGBT issues, Obama has taken mostly symbolic steps to appear slightly less monstrous than his Republican opponents even while doing little to substantively alter the status quo. This is especially true on civil liberties/national security issues. He is admittedly showing real courage on closing Guantanamo in the face of an absurd fearmongering campaign (to which all too many other Democrats gave in)… but is pretty much just using it as a cover for embracing slightly modified Bush/Cheney policies, like abuse of state secrets, “preventive detention,” and a “kinder, gentler” form of military commissions. Not to mention, he wants to keep the prisoners at Bagram Air Base, a place every bit as bad as Guantanamo, stripped of their rights. Even Jon Stewart joked recently, in the context of poking fun at Dick Cheney’s hysteria over Obama’s positions, that there’s really only a 3-5% difference between the two.

Obama frequently utilizes one of the oldest tricks in politics, saying that he “supports” a given policy or position, and then doing nothing to advance it. David Sirota argued that this was the case with “cramdown” (allowing bankruptcy judges to modify home loans to prevent foreclosure, which subsequently failed in the Senate), and increasingly seems the case with the Employee Free Choice Act. He campaigned on EFCA to get union support, but his financial backers and many of his advisers are completely opposed to it, and he doesn’t seem willing to expend any “political capital” to see it through. “The motive for the two-step is obvious,” Sirota said. “Obama aims to get public credit for populist positions, while wink-and-nodding his way to moneyed-interest appeasement”.

So I reiterate: is there anything Obama is strongly committed to aside from the path of least resistance? It would be nice to know that he sees the LGBT community as something other than a source of votes and money; for a self-described “fierce advocate” for gay rights, he seems awfully willing to throw gays under the bus.

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2 Responses to “Does Barack Obama actually believe in anything?”

  1. Hey, let’s not use the term “LGBT” for the concept of “gay rights”, since after all, LGBT also includes bisexuals and transgendered, and the T aspect is all often NEVER included when bringing up such things :P.

  2. EzraSmith said

    Neat post.

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