Equality Matters

Can Obama Bridge The Enthusiasm Gap?

June 24, 2011 5:24 pm ET - by Kerry Eleveld

“Who else could the gays vote for?”

That’s the question mainstream reporters had seemingly drilled down to as President Barack Obama prepped for a Thursday address to one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.

What else could matter in the scheme of politics? You either vote Democrat or Republican, right? Certainly, queer Americans are stuck between a rock and a hard spot.

"Look, what are my options?” longtime activist David Mixner told the Huffington Post earlier this week. “Michele Bachmann? Rick Perry in Texas who is going to pray for the family council down in Texas? I don't think so. Let's be practical here."

But this narrow line of questioning and the answer that inevitably follows left me wondering if anybody else remembered why Barack Obama trounced John McCain in a blue wave that swept the nation in 2008. It’s the same reason Republicans dominated Dems in the 2010 midterms. ENTHUSIASM. A fever that infects people, drives them to endless rallies, inspires their rap on a complete stranger’s door or that equally awkward phone call with a loved one, pulls the money from their pocket, and delivers them to polling booth come election day.

Questioning who one would vote for assuming that they will be automatically beamed into a booth, lever placed in hand, misses the point entirely. Will they phone bank, canvass, donate – will they even show up? These are the questions that should be keeping up the White House at night because enthusiasm is where it’s at – or not – especially when it comes to your base.

And here’s what I’m seeing: enthusiasm is lagging among progressives overall. Major labor groups like the International Association of Fire Fighters are pulling money from the Democratic Party at the federal level in favor of donating to individual races. Vice President Al Gore strained to find a silver lining in Obama’s environmental record among the 7,000 words he penned for Rolling Stone this week. And new polling shows only 49% of Latino voters say they are “certain” to vote for Obama, a group that handed him 67% of their votes in the 2008 elections. Let’s not even broach reproductive rights.

So where is Obama with gay, bisexual and transgender Americans? Honestly, it’s hard to know. As Democratic strategist Paul Begala noted on CNN’s AC360 this week, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party under his leadership have lagged in attracting the LGBT vote, with Obama getting only 73% of gay voters in 2008 compared to John Kerry’s 77% in 2004. LGBT support for Democrats in the 2010 midterms dipped even lower to 69%.

“We've had an 8-point erosion in our performance among gay Americans,” Begala noted. “We need to do something to energize this base.”

To be fair, the midterm enthusiasm gap doesn’t take into account “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and the president’s direction to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), so Obama and the Democrats may well have gotten a bump from those actions.

But his Thursday night speech to LGBT donors likely did little to amplify that bump. The room full of 600 donors applauded politely throughout but the chemistry was nothing short of flat. Even as gay New Yorkers waited with baited breath to learn the outcome of a vote that might legalize same-sex marriage in the state, Obama offered nothing new on the subject, merely telegraphing his support for equal rights.

“I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country,” he said, strenuously avoiding the terms marriage and civil unions.

That was a turning point of sorts – kicking off a smattering of hecklers who sporadically piped up now and again for the duration of the address in what would typically be an entirely subservient room.

“Marriage,” one audience member floated.

“Marriage, marriage, marriage,” added another.

“I heard you guys,” Obama acknowledged. “Believe it or not, I anticipated that somebody might…” he trailed off to laughter. “Where was I?” he added, moving past the inquiry.

The president’s biggest applause lines came at the mention of DOMA, and his cessation in defending it – something the crowd seemed genuinely excited about.

But he ultimately turned DOMA into a tool of sorts, crafting a justification for his federalist approach to marriage equality.

“Now, part of the reason that DOMA doesn't make sense is that traditionally marriage has been decided by the states,” he told the crowd.

True. And this is the argument that’s winning the day in the courts as litigators make the case for why DOMA runs counter to over 100 years of case law. But there’s a huge chasm between dissecting the legal inconsistencies of a discriminatory law and leading a country, and it felt distinctly as if Obama was hiding behind history to shield himself from the responsibility of charting a course to justice.

The president - or perhaps his speech writers - also didn’t do the crowd any favors by taking a turn down memory lane to election night 2008.

“Now, being here with all of you, I can’t help but think back to election night two and a half years ago,” Obama recalled, waxing nostalgic.  “We were in Grant Park -- some of you were there.  Beautiful night.  Culmination of an extraordinary journey; a campaign that had drawn on the hard work and support of people all across the country.”

Déjà vu. Rick Warren. A reminder of the administration’s total incapacity to understand just how bittersweet that night in 2008 really was for LGBT Americans – that our hearts were breaking across the land as we watched one of the greatest civil rights achievements in this nation’s history unfold even as our brothers and sisters in California were stripped of their fundamental right marry by a bare majority of voters. A bare majority.

Never mind that the political process made a mockery of the founding fathers’ intent to never leave the rights of a minority subject to the whims of the majority. Never mind that marriage equality had passed the California state legislature twice, only to be vetoed by a governor who said the decision should be left to the courts. Never mind that the Golden State’s high court ultimately did shine the light of freedom on tens of thousands of Californians only to have darkness descend on that election night. Never mind that aerial views of protestors registering their anguish in the streets were originally mistaken by some mainstream journalists as revelers in Obama’s victory.

Never mind. Why not ask Rick Warren – a key supporter of the ballot measure that visited that anguish upon millions of Americans that night – to give the invocation at your inauguration?

It was this type of missed connection that hung in the air Thursday evening. When it finally came time for Obama to make his ask to the New York donors, his entreaties were lost on a room full of people hanging on the edge of their site for some resolution in a battle that’s been fought one too many times in Albany, in a struggle that cries out for a champion at the national level.

“We can look at the progress we’ve made in the last two years, to the changes that were led not by Washington, but by folks standing up for themselves, or for their sons or for their daughters, fighting for what’s right … that’s the story of progress in America,” Obama told the crowd. “And with your help, if you keep up the fight, and if you will devote your time and your energies to this campaign one more time, I promise you we will write another chapter in that story.”

Some mainstream reporters have interpreted those prose as a wink and a nod from the president to gays that he’ll come out for marriage equality in a second term.

“Given the context — he was in New York, where gay marriage is on the verge of becoming legal, and he alluded directly to his audience’s impatience with him — the most plausible interpretation here is that he is appealing for gay support in 2012 in exchange for the tacit assurance that he’ll come out for gay marriage in his second term,” wrote Greg Sargent of the Washington Post.

That may well be what the White House wants us to think, but let’s just state the obvious: there’s no guarantee of a second term. In fact, given the economy, it’s entirely reasonable to imagine that it could be a very tough slog to 2013 depending on whom the GOP fields as a candidate.

Queer Americans quite simply don’t need the promise of inspired leadership next term, we need the promise of it now.

Following the event, I tracked down Mixner, who attended the fundraiser. He didn’t back off his endorsement of Obama in 2012, but he shared with me his unmitigated disappointment as the room rapidly emptied following the president’s departure.

“He must step forward and exert the moral leadership that comes with the office of the Presidency of the United States and lead us and lead this nation into the smoothest transition possible, without violence, without pain, and without agony,” Mixner said. “Fannie Lou Hamer – a great civil rights legend – told me in the 1960s, ‘Oh honey, courage is just a lack of options.’ Well, he’s making clear we have to take his options away. We’re going to make him courageous on this issue.”

Earlier in the week, I posted a piece that noted just how tricky it would be for President Obama to re-enlist LGBT Americans as true believers if he continued to object to their full participation in the promise of our nation – that freedom means freedom for everyone.

As he heads into the 2012 election cycle, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for him to have it both ways on same-sex marriage – to carry the magic mantle of hope and change, to appeal to the better angels of our nature, while literally falling behind the trend lines on supporting something as fundamentally American as the expression of our liberty.

In my view, Obama’s New York speech demonstrated just what an impossible proposition that truly is and will continue to be. And if the mood in that room following the DNC fundraiser was any indication, enthusiasm could be in short supply.

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