Don’t Tell Me to Wait

When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were duking it out for the Democratic nomination in late 2007 and early 2008, I was a junior in high school who couldn’t tell you all that much about where each candidate stood on repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or enacting employment non-discrimination laws and marriage equality. What I could tell you, however, was that Barack Obama was good and Hillary Clinton was slightly less-good.

Why? Because Barack Obama was, well, different. He spoke in values, not sentences you could have pulled from the National Journal. By extension, his supporters seemed to back him not to elect a generic capital-D Democrat, but to elect this particular Democrat. He was an underdog, a sorta-outsider taking on everything that was wrong with politics — with every intention of winning. He was a statesman and an activist at the same time. It seemed he was running to be the kind of president everyone said they wanted.

My opinion of Obama at the time was definitely a bit rose-colored, and by no means perfectly “rational” as the word is used in political discourse. I identified with a candidate, and projected all things good upon them. And I didn’t just do this because I was in high school and didn’t know any better; for the vast majority of people engaged in politics, that’s how candidate choice works — at least on some level.

This is one of the many reasons why it’s so important for activists to pressure political candidates — especially the ones who are sympathetic to their causes to the point at which their support is taken for granted. The voters need to be reminded once in a while that their “all things good” projections on candidates are often just that: projections. As silly as this may sound, if constituencies that one expects would line up behind a candidate aren’t visibly upset with that candidate, their support is assumed by everyone else and, by extension, that candidate, giving them no incentive to move in that constituency’s direction. After all, why should they? They don’t have to give up anything in order to get their donations and their votes.

Perhaps nowhere has President Obama’s navigation of this tension been more measured, careful and, well, tense than with the LGBT community — a navigation thoroughly documented by former Advocate reporter and current DailyKos columnist (and friend of AMERICAblog!) Kerry Eleveld in her new book, Don’t Tell Me to Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency. Drawing from her time spent covering Obama on the campaign trail in 2008, and from the White House during his first term — interviewing him in person three times during the process — the book provides an inside look at the politics of gay rights during the Obama years.

The story begins with then-candidate Obama’s defense of his opposition to same-sex marriage being used in a robocall supporting Proposition 8 in California, and ends with President Obama’s announcement in 2012 that this was no longer the case — his evolution was complete. In the intervening pages, however, the reader is told the story of how he got from Point A to Point B, highlighting the at times collaborative and at times confrontational relationship between the president and the movement who needed him.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the book is just how much inertia there is in Washington, and just how organized a movement needs to be in order to affect meaningful change. Yes, the LGBT movement won a series of political, legislative and/or legal battles on DOMA, DADT and marriage equality in recent years, but as Eleveld shows, those wins would not have happened so quickly — let alone happened at all — without a collection of efforts from both inside and outside of the Washington establishment. As she told me over the phone yesterday, winning battles for public opinion wasn’t enough; public support “doesn’t necessarily translate into what people do in Washington.”

This means that movements need to both move and capitalize on public opinion. The arc of history doesn’t bend toward justice by itself. More often than not, it has to be bent. Bloggers need to sweat what traditional media might consider small stuff, like when John Aravosis flagged the Obama campaign’s selection of Donnie McClurkin — a gospel singer who had vowed to fight “the curse of homosexuality” — for a “40 Days of Faith & Family” tour, describing the nod as “sucking up to anti-gay bigots and joining them on stage – no, giving them a stage.” Activists need to stage direct actions that generate headlines that make specific legislation a priority, like when GetEQUAL activists continuously interrupted President Obama’s speech at a fundraiser for Barbara Boxer calling for him to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Insider interest groups like the Human Rights Campaign need to establish relationships with members of Congress for when legislation like the Hate Crimes Act is introduced. Donors need to be willing to withhold money from politicians and political organizations that aren’t willing to fight for said legislation.

Without multi-front campaigns like these, inertia in Washington can and will prevent change. Even leaders who in their heart of hearts want to move ahead of the status quo won’t do so unless they feel that doing so is politically viable. President Obama appears to be no exception in this regard, holding out support for marriage equality by repeatedly saying he was “evolving” on the issue and at multiple points saying he wasn’t ready to “make news” on the issue before he finally announced his full support. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how late to the party he was, and how much he underestimated his ability to lead public opinion on the issue as opposed to simply following it. But as Eleveld said, by the time President Obama came around on marriage equality, the issue had become far larger than conventional wisdom held. As she told me:

Marriage equality was no longer just some constituency issue. It was an issue that spoke to the core of who the president was as a person. It was no longer just LGBT-specific…It was a broader progressive issue that many people were paying attention to — not just LGBT people. It became this marker of: “Is this really the guy that we elected in 2008? Because the guy we elected in 2008 was not only supposed to be true to himself — and in that sense, very candid with the voters — but also ahead of the curve. And he’s clearly not ahead of the curve anymore on this.”

That was only a political reality because the LGBT movement pushed the curve ahead, constantly reminding the president that their support — in coverage, in dollars, in votes and so on  — was not a guarantee. He had to earn it. As the LGBT movement looks to the battles ahead (the Equality Act, which the White House is not yet ready to endorse, comes to mind), it’s beyond important to keep this in mind. It isn’t enough that the public already thinks that anti-LGBT housing and hiring discrimination are already (and rightly) illegal; it will take coordinated pressure on the politicians who we count as friends in order to make it so.

We can’t wait.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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9 Responses to “Don’t Tell Me to Wait”

  1. Skye Winspur says:

    In any complex political system, there’s almost always a direct conflict between the people who come to embody popular hope and aspiration for change and the people who need that change most urgently. (You can call it substantive change vs. cosmetic change.) This year’s movie SELMA dramatized this very well. In spite of his bungling of some important issues, I respect Pres. Obama because I think he understands this tension well. I won’t forget that early on in his presidency he *encouraged* activists to pressure him. Unlike some Democrats, who live in a kind of mental paradise of eternal LBJ Great Society justice, he’s not inclined to take important constituencies for granted. (I am about to watch him speak to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus gala tonight.)

  2. BeccaM says:

    I agree with you.

  3. dcinsider says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you said. I simply wanted to point out that Hillary is not all that, and for that matter neither is Bernie, who is totally unelectable. It’s some slim pickins’ for us this time around I’m afraid, but the choice between Dem or Repub is, as always, clear as a bell.

  4. BeccaM says:

    I still haven’t forgotten how DADT and DOMA were signed with great fanfare in the (first?) Clinton White House. I could almost have forgiven Bill if he’d at least apologized and said, “I’m really sorry, but it was this or a veto override with something far, far worse.”

    But no. He actually had the nerve both times to say they were terrific laws which wouldn’t really result in discrimination against gays and lesbians. Of course, we know what happened after that…

    At no point have I been saying I think Hillary is the best the Democrats could muster. I know there are plenty of commenters around here who will disagree with me (and one in particular who hates every single Democrat), but my dream candidate would’ve been Elizabeth Warren. She’s not running. So we’re down to three and a half. Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley, and maybe Biden. Right now, it seems like it’s just Clinton and Sanders.

    I’m old enough to remember the McGovern debacle. And Mondale.

    The one good part about the Tea Baggers is their rigid demand for ideological purity — and it’s damaging their party’s prospects. I don’t want to see progressive and liberals doing the same thing, especially given what the GOPers have to offer this time around. Right now, my eye is on the Supreme Court.

  5. dcinsider says:

    Well, the obstacles do tend to fall one by one. However, some obstacles are larger, and when they fall there is a huge thud, and it wakes up the good and bad.

    The remaining obstacles will also fall, but they take perseverance and patience. However, that patience must be marked with impatience with our politicians who happily tap into our financial resources but fail to prioritize our agenda when in office.

    I am talking to you Hillary Clinton.

    No one has been better at tapping into gay coffers than the Clinton’s, and no one has done less for gays and lesbians than Bill and Hillary when they have had the chance. In fact, Bill was downright awful (DOMA, DADT).

    For some reason I cannot explain, the gays love them some Bill and Hillary. Yet, we have had many more politicians that have done so much more for us, and have never been embraced like these two.

    I’ll probably end up voting for Hillary in the general, because who the hell else am I going to vote for? But it will not be because she has earned my vote.

  6. 2karmanot says:

    “It seemed he was running to be the kind of president everyone said they wanted.” Sad but true, Obozo ran one of the most brilliant and fraudulent flim-flam campaigns in American history. Ultimately, he lost the entirety of the left of center Democrats, who, by staying home made their voices heard in the following elections that put Republicans in power. The Hills is doing exactly the same thing.

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  8. FLL says:

    I think that the repeal of DOMA and the advent of marriage equality were destined to happen simply because judges in the federal judiciary don’t have to run for reelection and, therefore, can act in accordance with their beliefs about the U.S. Constitution. The repeal of DADT was not at all as certain because it depended on elected politicians who were often fearful of fundamentalist Christians. Bloggers, like John Aravosis and Joe Sudbay, were crucial ingredients in the mix because they brought to light the foot-dragging of the Obama administration regarding DOMA and DADT repeal, and I hope Eleveld mentions the role that bloggers played. However, no player was as crucial during the battle for DADT repeal in 2010 as GetEQUAL. They were truly giants, and I’m certain that history will acknowledge that.

  9. BeccaM says:

    It’s not just inertia, but what at times feels like a Sisyphean task of eternally rolling a boulder uphill. We win nationwide on same-sex marriage equality…and immediately the boulder becomes heavier as the fundamentalist Christians demand the right not to recognize just those marriages and no others. Worse, now they’re asking specific permission to discriminate against LGBT Americans in the name of Christianist religion — discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations and businesses. Because for some reason, their religious rights are supposed to include the privilege of violating the civil rights of others. (But only the Christianists’ rights, never anybody else’s.)

    Now the White House has signaled going wobbly on LGBT rights…and so the fight continues, as does the boulder rolling.

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