RARELY has a president-elect arrived with such promise and ended his first year with such disappointment as has President Obama. Last January, there appeared to be the dawning of a new age in politics that would be driven by reform, justice, transparency, tolerance, and an end to war. Many, myself included, could barely wait for Barack Obama’s first day in office; to us, change had arrived in Washington.
Not one of us was deluded into expecting miracles. After all, we had just suffered through eight years of unmitigated horror under George W. Bush, we were fighting two wars, our country’s reputation was in tatters, and our economy was in a shambles. The challenges facing our new leader were some of the greatest ever for an incoming president. Nevertheless, we were comforted by the fact that he brought with him a huge majority in the House of Representatives and a comfortable one in the U.S. Senate.
Those of us longing for reform, change, and freedom knew that this was our historic moment: the year 2009 provided a huge opportunity to create the kind of transformation that would inspire a nation for years. We only had to look at the accomplishments of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, or even Harry Truman to know what was possible with real leadership, new ideas, and the ability to inspire. Johnson alone took his majority and gave this nation sweeping domestic reforms in his first year, including a historic civil rights bills, the war on poverty, education reform, Medicare, VISTA, Head Start and other major domestic advancements too numerous to mention.
Armed with a proven ability to inspire, an awe-inspiring felicity with words, and a place in the history books as the first African–American president, Barack Obama, we were certain, was poised to propel the country into another exciting, perhaps an unprecedented, new era. How wrong we were in that judgment! Instead of a broad and sweeping program for change in America, we got a timid, incremental one-issue-at-a-time administration that was run internally more like a Chicago Ward meeting than a transformational presidency.
What should have been twelve months filled with historic progress for the GLBT community has turned out to be a year of missed opportunities. Never again in the foreseeable future will we have the margins in Congress, the excitement of a new president, and a Republican Party on the run as we had at the beginning of 2009. If ever we had the chance to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and to pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, this was the time. For nearly two decades the GLBT community poured money, volunteers and resources into the Democratic Party with the promise that when the timing was right, the party would be there for us on these issues.
There was no better moment for the gay community. Not only was the president and the Democratic Party not there for us, at times they seem to be even hurting our cause. The president refused to take a stance on equal marriage in Maine, New York, or New Jersey. Among world leaders he has been silent on the events in Uganda that could result in capital punishment for gays—an issue that even the Pope and Rick Warren have spoken out against. When DOMA was challenged in court, the administration filed horrible briefs in the Justice Department to make our road more difficult. A full six months later, GLBT federal employees still have no pension plans or health insurance for their families.
No hearings have been held on the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” When some were scheduled, they were pushed back at the urging of the White House. The president has refused to issue a stop-loss order to halt the dismissal of our brave service people and continues to allow budgetary funds to pay for the implementation of this policy. Does anyone believe, with Obama’s popularity slipping and the Blue Dog Democrats running scared, that they’re going to push that legislation this year?
The situation with marriage equality is even worse. Obama’s constant refrain that marriage is between a man and a woman has been used against us in marriage equality battlegrounds. Not only did the president remain quiet on Maine’s referendum last November, but the week before the vote, Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration had no position on the ballot measure! The Democratic Party that, under Howard Dean, donated $50,000 to defeat Proposition 8 in California, sent e-mails to Democrats in Maine urging them to form phone banks for Governor John Corzine’s race in New Jersey, but never mentioned our struggle in Maine.
When we won marriage equality in Iowa, there was not a word of acknowledgment from the White House. As we struggled in New York and New Jersey, no statements of encouragement were issued. When a young man in Puerto Rico was torn to pieces, nothing but numbing silence could be heard.
Yes, there have been some encouraging moments. One cannot underestimate the importance of the new hate crimes legislation that was extended to include sexual orientation (if it’s ever fully implemented). Some very fine GLBT people are serving within the administration. The late Harvey Milk got a medal. There was a Gay Pride Party. The HIV Travel Ban was lifted after Obama had been in office for a year. The week that Maine was starting to vote by mail, Obama went to the Human Rights Campaign Dinner and gave a rousing speech (though he remained curiously silent on the initiative). He has appointed the first transsexual person to federal government, which is a huge source of pride. At last that long-neglected part of our community is getting acknowledged for its talents and contributions.
All year long, we’ve been told to be patient and that our time would come; that, by the end of the president’s first or second term in office, we would be pleased with his accomplishments. Sounds good; the problem is that this assumes the political situation and Congressional make-up will remain the same. Now they’re telling us that a tough election year lies ahead, so we may have to wait until 2011. I’m pretty sure that in 2011 they’ll be telling us that the president is up for re-election. Or by then we will no longer have enough votes to get anything done. Let’s be honest about it: 2009 was supposed to be our year, and it was squandered by our national leadership.