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Why Obama Keeps Winning Gay Battles But Losing The War

July 01, 2011 2:51 pm ET by Kerry Eleveld

President Barack Obama seems puzzled. Why is his record on queer rights continually being questioned simply because he’s stagnated on supporting marriage equality?

“Let me start by saying that this administration, under my direction, has consistently said we cannot discriminate as a country against people on the basis of sexual orientation,” Obama said in response to a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd at a Wednesday press conference. “And we have done more in the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been in here than the previous 43 presidents to uphold that principle.”

But Todd hadn’t asked about the administration’s overall accomplishments, he’d asked about same-sex marriage and whether Obama believes it’s a civil right. The president never addressed that question and his laundry list of accomplishments didn’t stop The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler from inquiring later in the press conference about whether Obama’s “personal view” on marriage equality had changed.

Obama first attempted to brush off the question, saying, “I’m not going to make news on that today. Good try, though.” When Meckler tried to follow up, he curtly responded, “Laura, I think this has been asked and answered. I’ll keep on giving you the same answer until I give you a different one.”

Obama was ready to drop the subject. He’d called this press conference to get some leverage against GOP lawmakers on a budget deal to cut the federal deficit.  Why were mainstream reporters fixated on this?

He perhaps understandably feels a bit annoyed. His administration helped push through hate crimes legislation (though people barely remember it anymore), “don’t ask, don’t tell” is being repealed under his watch, he finally gave the order to stop the Justice Department’s maddening defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, hospital visitation, the HIV travel ban… c’mon guys, what gives?

The president, I suspect, is nonplussed by the gulf that exists between what he’s hearing from his top aides and what’s being reflected back to him – not by the LGBT movement as much as by mainstream America. He took a drubbing in piece after piece after piece after piece this week about his failure to show leadership on the issue of marriage equality.

That Obama in perplexed by this mainstream obsession with LGBT equality illustrates once again what this administration has lacked from its outset: a top advisor who has the ear of the president and is either LGBT themselves or at least intimately familiar with the community.

This is not an entirely new observation, just a persistently nagging one. The oversight was evident before Barack Obama even took the oath of office from his choice of anti-gay Proposition 8 promoter Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. It reared its ugly head again when the administration filed its first DOMA brief invoking incest and child marriages as a defense of the discriminatory law. That neither of these instances had been flagged by someone who was charged with advising the president on the civil rights issue of our day and seeing land mines before the White House had rolled over them was proof positive that this phantom aide didn’t exist.

The absence of an LGBT dream advisor (not to be confused with a dreamy LGBT advisor) has hamstrung the administration from the get-go in assessing the landscape on queer issues in terms of both the constituency itself and the American public. Instead of handling gay rights as one of the great moral issues of our time, the administration has taken a piecemeal political approach to it -- if they could just check off enough accomplishment boxes, surely queer rights advocates would be sated.

What they failed to realize was just how much a part of the greater American consciousness equality for gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens has become. As Frank Bruni of The New York Times pointed out last Sunday, Americans on average now believe that about 25 percent of the population is LGBT. The fact that exit polling usually tags us at closer to 3-5 percent of voters tells us just how much our straight brothers and sisters have internalized our struggle and in many cases embraced it as their own.

Meanwhile, the administration started working its way down the rope line of accomplishments only to come face to face with marriage equality and find themselves in an unforgiving stalemate. It turns out we are so much more than the sum of our political issues – we are a people and a movement and a destiny.

What New York’s glory and all the questions that followed demonstrated is just how quickly the needle is moving on queer rights. It’s not a matter of appeasing a constituency anymore, it’s a matter of keeping pace with America. And like it or not, President Obama is now falling behind where the nation is headed.

Obama’s domestic policy advisor – and arguably one of his most LGBT-conversant aides – Melody Barnes spoke this week about how advisers can change the mind of the president.

“He is an active consumer of facts and information,” Barnes told a crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “He wants everybody to bring their perspective to the table. And so if he feels as though that hasn’t happened, he will kind of march around the table to try and make sure that he’s got input from everyone.”

But who is sitting at that table on a daily basis for the gays, I thought? No one. He may reach out occasionally for input from someone like John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, or Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, or even his social secretary, Jeremy Bernard. But as integral as each of these individuals might be to the administration serving in their respective capacities, none of them comes close to penetrating his inner policy circle day in and day out.

Of course, it’s never too late to add that top advisor. I would suggest someone familiar with the legal issues of the day, preferably imported from outside Washington for some fresh thinking: maybe Chad Griffin, a former Clinton staffer who has helped mount the Proposition 8 case; perhaps Jenny Pizer, former director of the Marriage Project at Lambda Legal and now with the think-tank The Williams Institute; or Tobias Wolff, a constitutional law scholar who advised Obama during the ’08 campaign.

She or he may want to spend a little time imagining the potential spectacle of the Prop. 8 case graduating to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 and infiltrating Washington with a swarm of lawyers, briefs, arguments, and press coverage. Just guessing the president might meet back up with that old familiar question of whether gay marriage is a civil right.

And on the campaign trail, “I think this has been asked and answered,” might not seem quite as charming as it did this week in the White House East Room.