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.