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Celebration – and (purposely?) missed opportunities: the President’s speech at the HRC Gala

It was nice to step away from the keyboard on Sunday after doing the instant analysis of Barack Obama’s speech at the HRC National Dinner during SiriusXM’s live coverage on Saturday. I put up the transcript once it was available, and then shut off the computer to enjoy a low-humidity, mild temp, clear Sunday here in NC. I wanted a bit of time to pass before looking at the speech in total with a fresh eye. It’s interesting to compare impressions based on listening vs. watching vs. reading it.

The one word that I would choose to sum up this speech: Cautious. The man’s running for re-election and has decided to coast his way and not make perceived waves. Bullet points from the speech:

  • Humor about Lady Gaga as “our leader”‘
  • Acknowledgment that the struggle for basic rights continues;
  • Ticked off accomplishments – hate crimes (again!) hospital visitation, HIV travel ban, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell demise.
  • Bullying is bad.
  • Help him pass the American Jobs Act. Put this country back to work. This is a contest of values.
  • Knocked the GOP Clown Car that stood by silently as a debate crowd booed a gay soldier (nice rallying point);
  • Celebrated progress along with a direct comparison to the black civil rights movement when it comes to patience.

Remember that (again!), thou-shalt-not-criticize-the-President supporters: he’s the one who asked the the LGBT community to keep his feet to the fire, and he did it again:

Two years ago, I stood at this podium, in this room, before many of you, and I made a pledge. I said I would never counsel patience; that it wasn’t right to tell you to be patient any more than it was right for others to tell African Americans to be patient in the fight for equal rights a half century ago.

Of course progress takes time as he said thereafter, but it is possible to actually support and criticize the Administration and entities with power and access, unless you have some kind of a problem multi-tasking, hmm?


An aside — while on the radio on Saturday, one caller took the tack that I was anti-Obama until the last exchange co-commentator Joe Jervis and I had about the “where’s the beef” of the speech. I had to push back on some of his accusations because they were quite familiar. In essence, this listener was conflating my views with that of commenters who react in terms like:

  • I’m staying home and not voting.
  • I’m not voting for Obama.

I’ve never encouraged either of the above, and challenge anyone to search PHB archives to find such a sentiment. These charges usually come from Obama supporters who don’t like criticism, and usually bundle that with “you’re going to suppress turnout.”

Are you sh*tting me? Last time that I checked I had no psychic, telepathic or magical power over my readers. One blogger stating an opinion is not going to make thousands of voters stay home. Not having a job, or having your house foreclosed upon is what will suppress turnout, whether or not the suck-@ss economy is Obama’s fault.

The fact is that down-ticket races (state and local) more profoundly effect the lives of taxpaying LGBTs than who is in the White House. And the right wing has known this for a long time. Witness the money and power of millionaire Art Pope, who has, along with his pals the Koch brothers, taken control in North Carolina, a 2012 battleground state (see a fantastic piece outlining the problem in The New Yorker).

Instead of blaming bloggers for the state of any political race, follow the radical right wing money.

Since Obama was speaking before the HRC, it was not unexpected that the President, for all intents and purposes, gave the organzation sole credit for accomplishments made in conjunction with the White House and on the Hill.

Many questioned whether we’d succeed in repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And, yes, it took two years to get the repeal through Congress. (Applause.) We had to hold a coalition together. We had to keep up the pressure. We took some flak along the way. (Applause.) But with the help of HRC, we got it done. And “don’t ask, don’t tell” is history. (Applause.) And all over the world, there are men and women serving this country just as they always have — with honor and courage and discipline and valor. We got it done. (Applause.) We got that done. All around the world, you’ve got gays and lesbians who are serving, and the only difference is now they can put up a family photo. (Laughter.) No one has to live a lie to serve the country they love.

The more complex and stormy path that DADT repeal actually took involved the work of many more people to push the flaccid HRC and the Obama Administration to action. The drive certainly wasn’t coming from those entities — I doubt we’d be where we are not without the direct actions that shook them to act.

I vowed to keep up the fight against the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. There’s a bill to repeal this discriminatory law in Congress, and I want to see that passed. But until we reach that day, my administration is no longer defending DOMA in the courts. I believe the law runs counter to the Constitution, and it’s time for it to end once and for all. It should join “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the history books. (Applause.)

What’s not in the speech:

So, yes, we have more work to do. And after so many years — even decades — of inaction you’ve got every right to push against the slow pace of change. But make no mistake — I want people to feel encouraged here — we are making change. We’re making real and lasting change. We can be proud of the progress we’ve already made.

  • Nothing about his “evolution” on marriage equality. I can’t believe anyone out there thought he was going to make a bold move on this. That’s not the man that was elected. He’s proven bold isn’t in his vocabulary. He wants to negotiate and bargain away any bold decisions. Besides, this is some kind of bizarre tap-dance – does anyone on the left or right think he is personally against marriage equality? That’s what is so preposterous about the “evolution”. He already declared his support for it in a 1996 Windy City Times questionnaire before he had an intellectual/religious/political regression on the subject. We all know this is a SCOTUS decision, so, IMHO, he’s going to punt this for the rest of his time in office.
  • No goals set, no promises going forward. Unlike his last speech to HRC gala attendees, he spoke only in general terms of what we would all like to see occur.
  • No specific mention of his jobs bill in how it relates to the discrimination ENDA would solve; he was in the one venue where connecting the two is relevant;
  • No mention of any Executive Orders coming down the pike. He could have at least tied in with jobs a promise that he would sign an order protecting federal employees.

So it was the kind of oratory Obama moment that was meant to thrill those in attendance, who were there to pat each other — and POTUS — on the back for a job well done. On that level it succeeded as planned.

I’m sure that the speechwriters knew that omitting action items was not going to go unnoticed outside of the venue, where the rubber meets the road and equality is nowhere to be found, but as we’ve seen that before. The President does believe he’s meeting with the LGBT community at these affairs, and so he has a skewed perception of life outside of a black tie affair.

The level of celebration, for me, was a quick feel good then displaced with generalities and more platitudes. For instance, in my What Advice Would You Give Obama?, I held out hope that he would address the ballot initiatives to enshrine bigotry in to the state constitutions of Minnesota and North Carolina in 2012, but it received only a passing mention…

And I don’t have to tell you, there are those who don’t want to just stand in our way but want to turn the clock back; who want to return to the days when gay people couldn’t serve their country openly; who reject the progress that we’ve made; who, as we speak, are looking to enshrine discrimination into state laws and constitutions — efforts that we’ve got to work hard to oppose, because that’s not what America should be about.

Back when the fight was in Maine, the President didn’t speak out regarding that state either. Unfortunately the President still holds the official opinion that marriage is a matter to be decided by the states — “let the people decide.” And we heard no planned “efforts” on his part Saturday that he would make to oppose those amendments going forward. He was playing it safe, being cautious.

I’m not sure why his political folks think there’s some mighty middle that would refuse to vote for him over publicly opposing specific amendments that are clearly unconstitutional, but I don’t expect much change; Barack Obama would need a spine transplant.

To put it all into perspective though, the LGBT community has gotten more out of this administration than many progressive groups have (talk to the Congressional Black Caucus at the public spanking they took from Obama recently). They were all waiting in line when he took office, and many have seen no action, or worse, regressive actions occur because of timidity, inertia or inability to believe that the GOP is not interested in cooperating.

The one thing that I do wonder – since he gets so many strokes from this well-heeled LGBT crowd (and countless other private LGBT affairs), is this as good as it gets for the Presidentin terms of reception, given how his administration has handled the loose “progressive agenda” so far? I wouldn’t know since I’m not an insider on that front, but he’s going to find out on the campaign trail whether “Cautious” sells.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding