Dana Milbank
Opinion writer June 28, 2011

On same-sex marriage, Obama still has cold feet

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Hillary Clinton, addressing a gay-pride celebration at the State Department this week, was in spirits as festive as her robin’s­-­egg-blue pantsuit.

The “historic vote in New York” legalizing same-sex marriage, the secretary of state told the gathering of gay and lesbian foreign service workers, “gives such visibility and credibility to everything that so many of you have done over so many years.”

Describing the conversion of one New York Republican senator who “became convinced that it was just not any longer fair for him to see one group of his constituents as different from another,” Clinton exulted: “I’ve always believed that we would make progress because we were on the right side of equality and justice.”

Clinton left out one salient detail, though: She and her boss, President Obama, oppose legalizing gay marriage.

It was but the latest display of the internal contradiction in the Obama administration’s policy on gay marriage — a position made even less tenable by New York’s vote.

At the core of Obama’s stance is a logical inconsistency: He believes gay Americans should be fully equal under the law, but by opposing gay marriage he supports a system that denies same-sex couples some 1,300 federal rights and benefits that married couples receive. The civil unions Obama favors as an alternative have little meaning in federal law.

Few questioned Obama’s (or Clinton’s) civil-union dodge during the 2008 presidential campaign, because gay marriage was politically impossible in most parts of the country. But the vote by the New York legislature — including the Republican-controlled Senate — and national polling have shown that marriage equality, though still politically difficult, is within reach.

For Obama, this is less about the issue than about leadership. Even if he backed gay marriage, it wouldn’t become legal without Congress rewriting the federal definition of marriage, which currently demands “a legal union between one man and one woman.” But if Obama really believes, as he says, that a class of Americans is suffering unconstitutional discrimination, you’d think he would take a stand as a matter of principle. Instead, to borrow a phrase one of his advisers applied to the administration’s Libya policy, the president is once again “leading from behind.”

On the eve of the vote in New York, Obama was heckled by an audience of gay New Yorkers when he again declined to endorse gay marriage. He further infuriated listeners with his observation that “traditionally marriage has been decided by the states” — a position that would leave unchallenged the 41 states that ban same-sex marriage.

Days before that, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer was booed at a blogger conference when he asserted: “The president has never favored same-sex marriage. He is against it. The country is evolving on this, and he is evolving on it.” More like devolving: Pfeiffer claimed that a 1996 questionnaire, which has Obama’s signature and states his support for same-sex marriage, was “filled out by someone else.”

At Monday’s White House briefing, press secretary Jay Carney was pressed about the contradiction between Obama’s support for equal rights for gay couples and his willingness to leave marriage to the states. “It’s not very useful for us to have this debate,” Carney replied.

People familiar with White House deliberations on the topic tell me they expect no further evidence of Obama’s “evolution” before next year’s elections. And so the contradiction will persist — as will the fog in Foggy Bottom.

At the State Department this week, gay diplomats and bureaucrats held their annual celebration of gay-pride month, which included a roundtable discussion of efforts to promote gay rights overseas. Don Steinberg, the deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, decreed: “Our mission must be to promote social and legal equality for the LGBT community.”

Clinton herself repeated a phrase she delivered to the same audience a year ago: “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

If so, wouldn’t the same apply at home to gay Americans seeking equal treatment? Her husband seems to think so: Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law when he was president, now supports gay marriage. But Hillary Clinton told the Advocate earlier this year: “I have not changed my position.”

Speaking at the gay-pride event about the “especially momentous and extraordinary” New York vote, Clinton departed from her script to describe the legislative victory in her adopted home state. “We have to continue to stand up for the rights and the well-being of LGBT people,” she concluded.

A worthy challenge — so why doesn’t the administration answer it?

danamilbank@washpost.com

Hillary Clinton, addressing a gay-pride celebration at the State Department this week, was in spirits as festive as her robin’s­-­egg-blue pantsuit.

The “historic vote in New York” legalizing same-sex marriage, the secretary of state told the gathering of gay and lesbian foreign service workers, “gives such visibility and credibility to everything that so many of you have done over so many years.”

Describing the conversion of one New York Republican senator who “became convinced that it was just not any longer fair for him to see one group of his constituents as different from another,” Clinton exulted: “I’ve always believed that we would make progress because we were on the right side of equality and justice.”

Clinton left out one salient detail, though: She and her boss, President Obama, oppose legalizing gay marriage.

It was but the latest display of the internal contradiction in the Obama administration’s policy on gay marriage — a position made even less tenable by New York’s vote.

At the core of Obama’s stance is a logical inconsistency: He believes gay Americans should be fully equal under the law, but by opposing gay marriage he supports a system that denies same-sex couples some 1,300 federal rights and benefits that married couples receive. The civil unions Obama favors as an alternative have little meaning in federal law.

Few questioned Obama’s (or Clinton’s) civil-union dodge during the 2008 presidential campaign, because gay marriage was politically impossible in most parts of the country. But the vote by the New York legislature — including the Republican-controlled Senate — and national polling have shown that marriage equality, though still politically difficult, is within reach.

For Obama, this is less about the issue than about leadership. Even if he backed gay marriage, it wouldn’t become legal without Congress rewriting the federal definition of marriage, which currently demands “a legal union between one man and one woman.” But if Obama really believes, as he says, that a class of Americans is suffering unconstitutional discrimination, you’d think he would take a stand as a matter of principle. Instead, to borrow a phrase one of his advisers applied to the administration’s Libya policy, the president is once again “leading from behind.”

On the eve of the vote in New York, Obama was heckled by an audience of gay New Yorkers when he again declined to endorse gay marriage. He further infuriated listeners with his observation that “traditionally marriage has been decided by the states” — a position that would leave unchallenged the 41 states that ban same-sex marriage.

Days before that, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer was booed at a blogger conference when he asserted: “The president has never favored same-sex marriage. He is against it. The country is evolving on this, and he is evolving on it.” More like devolving: Pfeiffer claimed that a 1996 questionnaire, which has Obama’s signature and states his support for same-sex marriage, was “filled out by someone else.”

At Monday’s White House briefing, press secretary Jay Carney was pressed about the contradiction between Obama’s support for equal rights for gay couples and his willingness to leave marriage to the states. “It’s not very useful for us to have this debate,” Carney replied.

People familiar with White House deliberations on the topic tell me they expect no further evidence of Obama’s “evolution” before next year’s elections. And so the contradiction will persist — as will the fog in Foggy Bottom.

At the State Department this week, gay diplomats and bureaucrats held their annual celebration of gay-pride month, which included a roundtable discussion of efforts to promote gay rights overseas. Don Steinberg, the deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, decreed: “Our mission must be to promote social and legal equality for the LGBT community.”

Clinton herself repeated a phrase she delivered to the same audience a year ago: “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

If so, wouldn’t the same apply at home to gay Americans seeking equal treatment? Her husband seems to think so: Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law when he was president, now supports gay marriage. But Hillary Clinton told the Advocate earlier this year: “I have not changed my position.”

Speaking at the gay-pride event about the “especially momentous and extraordinary” New York vote, Clinton departed from her script to describe the legislative victory in her adopted home state. “We have to continue to stand up for the rights and the well-being of LGBT people,” she concluded.

A worthy challenge — so why doesn’t the administration answer it?

danamilbank@washpost.com