Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) didn’t waste time. Less than an hour after the state Senate passed the marriage equality bill, the triumphant governor signed it into law and spoke to his state and the nation. “[D]emocracy works when the people speak,” Cuomo said, “and the people spoke in volumes.” He called New York “a beacon of social justice.” He said the state’s vote “made a powerful statement.” And alluding to the missteps two years ago that led to failure, Cuomo said, “Sometimes justice is an evolutionary process.”
President Obama has said he is involved in his own process on marriage equality. His views were “evolving” on the issue, to be exact. This was a major step forward for the cause and for Obama, who had previously said he opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds.
But that was then.
Cuomo’s victory in New York has raised the bar on leadership and the gay community’s expectations. Patience with Obama’s evolutionary process has run out. Folks gay and straight want Obama to take a stand. But if they want the president to replicate at the federal level what Cuomo did in New York, they’re going to have to do more than hurl brick bats from the sidelines. They’re going to have to help him.
Despite a list of accomplishments that have brought more equality, dignity and fairness to the lives of gay men and lesbians, some advocates are on hair triggers when it comes to Obama and gay rights. It’s as if they are waiting to be proven right in their conviction that “he really doesn’t care about us.” And they are wrong.
I’m of the belief that intellectually Obama is already there on marriage equality. As Greg Sargent wrote last week, it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” the president will come out for same-sex marriage. But getting there politically is Obama’s biggest hurdle.
In my previous post, I outlined the many advantages Cuomo had at the state level that Obama doesn’t have at the federal level. Unlike Cuomo, the president has an energized Republican opposition whose stated goal is to ensure that he’s a one-term president. (We’ve seen how far they’re willing to go to delegitimize him.) Unlike Cuomo, the president’s approval rating is below 50 percent. And unlike Cuomo, the president doesn’t have a coalition of gay and lesbian groups and deep-pocketed donors all working together to get him to say “I do” and to have his back after he does it.
If we learned anything from the tumultuous “don’t ask, don’t tell” debate last year, it’s that Obama is a process-oriented, long-ball kinda guy. He is guided as much by a desire to do the right thing as by an understanding of how to get the right thing done. The six-month Pentagon study on DADT didn’t go over well with many in the gay community. But it allowed for the buy-in of the military and the cover Senators needed that made the repeal of DADT possible.
What’s missing from Obama’s “evolving” marriage equality stance is his process to embrace it publicly. Once he signals what that is, he and his administration will have to back up the words with the kind of leadership displayed by Cuomo. Also missing is the same behind-the-scenes coordinated effort among gay rights groups to not only push and support the president, but also the Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Congress needed to make marriage equality a reality at the federal level by overturning the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t do it first.
None of this will happen overnight and it certainly won’t be easy. As Cuomo said, “Sometimes justice is an evolutionary process.” As he showed over the last six months, it’s an all-hands-on-deck process. One that now requires Obama to go from “evolving” to leading if he is to bring to the nation what Cuomo brought to New York.