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President Obama and Gay Rights: Forgetting the Lessons of the Campaign

Those presidents who are both remembered by history and re-elected have been those who stuck their necks out to fight for the rights of the vulnerable. The gay community is still waiting for Obama.
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How does Obama the President compare to Obama the candidate on gay rights? It's no secret that GLBT advocates have expressed disappointment and frustration with decisions by the White House to avoid pressing for gay rights during the first year of the administration. No executive order to halt the discharges of gay troops; no bold leadership on passing non-discrimination legislation; no mention of a ballot initiative in Maine to reverse marriage equality that might have made a real difference in the loss there Tuesday. We helped elect him with our votes, money, and time because we were promised change. But in our lives as GLBT people, that's not what's being delivered.

And now we're in a pickle. Most gays are progressive and support the broader agenda of the Obama presidency of economic recovery, health care reform, action on global warming, immigration renewal and more. If we withhold our votes and dollars in the future, we'll contribute to conservative gains that will derail our own aspirations. Indeed, even otherwise progressive Americans have rolled their eyes at complaints by the gay community about Democrats' failure to deliver on gay equality. Some think we're a selfish special interest willing to put our narrow agenda above the good of the whole.

Of course, gays are not a special interest like the insurance industry, real estate brokers, or even teachers' unions or farmers, who are all generally seeking money or special concessions from the government. We are simply people who are reminded every day, by our very existence, of the right action that's required of a just society, and the wrong that's perpetrated against us as we are proactively denied the exact same rights as our fellow citizens.

This is why, while I don't begrudge President Obama's decision to seek buy-in from the center as part of his wish to transcend old divides, I do reject his insistence on including gay rights as part of what he needs to avoid to achieve success. Perhaps more to the point, it is becoming clear that the extreme risk-aversion that prompts Democrats to avoid backing gay rights is not only morally wrong but politically unwise.

Political types tend to spend their time arguing over two important debates (among others): first is whether politicians should play to their base or woo the center; second is whether policy action comes through appeals to ideas or only through pressure on the self-interest of politicians. The past year, and particularly this week's election losses in Virginia, New Jersey, and Maine, speak to both. By failing to deliver to the liberal base, the current Democratic leadership on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue dampened voter enthusiasm and turnout, helping prompt losses that are both real and symbolic. And stay-at-home, would-be voters of the left showed Democratic leaders through the pressure of non-support that they value progressive policies and will not necessarily support leaders who don't prioritize them.

Some, of course, will see the election losses as part of a conservative backlash against a Democratic Party that's moved too quickly toward the government activism of unreconstructed liberalism. They will say that going to bat for gay rights would be even more toxic. Never mind that lifting government bans on military service (which is overwhelmingly supported by the public, and even my a majority of conservatives) and marriage for LGBT people would be about as conservative an action as you can take--getting government out of the bedroom and off people's backs. The risk-averse will find almost any action too bold.

But that's never been the Obama team's philosophy. "Political calculation and risk aversion really have to take a back seat," said Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, six weeks into the new administration. It echoed a sentiment he shared during the campaign and in his new book about the centrality of risk to ongoing victory: "We are always better off on the high wire." Plouffe's point is that bold, new, and risky departures from the status quo are part of the recipe for success not just in an election but when governing too.

Sure enough, those presidents who are both remembered by history and who won more than one term in office--from Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt to FDR, Truman, and Johnson--have been those who stuck their necks out to fight for the rights of the vulnerable.

Gay rights are coming. Support in polls among young people is through the roof, with upwards of 90% of young people supporting full equality. This, too, is a lesson Democrats must learn, as they could lose a generation of new loyalists among young people if the GOP catches up to them in their support for gay rights--a prospect that may not be so unthinkable in coming years since the GOP can only survive if its moderate and young wings win control in the current intra-Party war.

What will determine success for the Obama presidency? If it remembers the lessons of its own campaign philosophy: often the high wire is also the high road to victory.

So, one year after the election, what do you think Candidate Obama would think of President Obama? Tweet your response (our Twitter hashtag is #OneYearLater), or post it in the comments section.