His experience didn't get him elected; his vision did.
He told us of a more perfect union, of an America that, after eight long and painful years of abuse at the hands of the Bush administration, we were desperate to believe was possible.
The hope and promise of Barack Obama’s election made the seemingly impossible possible. States like Virginia and Indiana, which hadn’t voted for a Democratic president in more than a generation, voted for him. Voters of every age, race, religion, and political affiliation -- even voters who called him a "n***er" -- put their faith in him and the vision he described, a vision perhaps never more eloquently articulated than in his landmark speech on race in March 2008:
This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign -- to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together -- unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction -- towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.
This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.
On the issue of equal rights for all Americans, this president stands on the wrong side of history. And if he does not change his position, he may well be one of the last American presidents to oppose marriage equality, forever leaving an ignoble stain on his legacy.
This week, the District Court of California ruled, clearly and unequivocally, that denying marriage rights to gays and lesbians is unconstitutional. Judge Walker’s 136-page decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger contains many critical explanations of the unconstitutionality and immorality of prohibiting gays and lesbians from exercising their equal rights to marriage, but on the penultimate page of the opinion, he states what is perhaps the most succinct rebuttal to those who would deny this right:
Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians.
And yet, the president continues to oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians.
That’s not how he and his spokespeople put it, of course. Following Judge Walker’s decision, the White House released this statement:
The President has spoken out in opposition to Proposition 8 because it is divisive and discriminatory. He will continue to promote equality for LGBT Americans.
But then David Axelrod went on MSNBC to clarify the president's position:
The president does oppose same-sex marriage, but he supports equality for gay and lesbian couples, and benefits and other issues, and that has been effectuated in federal agencies under his control.
This is nothing new, of course. The president's defenders argue, as Axelrod did, that the president’s position has not changed: he has, from the beginning, opposed marriage equality. In 2004, during his Senate campaign, he told the Chicago Tribune:
I'm a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.
Just days before the 2008 election, he reiterated this position:
I believe that marriage is between a man and woman and I am not in favor of gay marriage.
Those who voted for him for president knew full well his opposition to marriage equality, and they cannot be surprised by his continued opposition. He has been nothing if not consistent.
Except that the president’s position is inherently inconsistent. One cannot support some, but not all, equality any more than one can be a little bit pregnant. To support equal rights for gays and lesbians must, by definition, include marriage equality. Anything less is an endorsement of a separate-but-equal policy that is anything but equal.
Let’s be clear about this: the president is not a bigot. While his opposition to marriage equality is the same as, for example, George W. Bush, this president is no Dubya, who never did anything to expand the rights of any Americans. Certainly no one could reasonably argue that this president has demonstrated the same hostility toward equality as those who scream that "God hates fags," who seek to deny all rights and dignity to gays and lesbians, who will be satisfied with nothing less than a Constitutional amendment that codifies their hatred. To lump President Obama in with these bigots is to ignore and dismiss the very real steps he has taken.
- He signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanding the hate-crimes laws to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.
- He extended job benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.
- He issued a memo directing the Department of Health and Human Services to establish rules that would grant same-sex couples hospital visitation rights.
- In an address to the Human Rights Campaign last fall, he stated his supportfor repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and passing the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act.
The president attempts to have it both ways, supporting legislation that would benefit and protect gays and lesbians, while remaining steadfast in his opposition to marriage equality. It is a fair, even necessary, question to ask: Why? Why does the president continue to resist supporting what is clearly a matter of equality? Is it because he truly believes that separate-but-equal marriage is a morally defensible position? Given the eloquence with which he has spoken of equality and dignity, and given the policies he has enacted, that seems unlikely.
Is it a political calculation? Whom, exactly, does such a position appease? Certainly not those on the right, who do not support civil unions, benefits, adoption, or dignity of any kind for gay Americans. For those on the left, though, separate-but-equal is untenable, a compromise that compromises the dignity of millions of Americans.
It is an unacceptable compromise. This is a moral issue, and moral issues should not be subject to political calculations. While the fate of the Perry case rests in the hands of the court system, and while the president continues to expand rights for gays and lesbians, he has failed to show true moral leadership on this matter. Were he to express his unqualified support for full equality, he would offer renewed hope to those who were first inspired by him, he would show his political and moral courage, and he would deprive the bigots of the cover they now enjoy, no longer able to justify their hostility to marriage equality by saying that even the Democratic president is with them on this issue.
His failure to do so puts him at odds with his own party. A majority of Democrats -- 56 percent -- support marriage equality. Among liberals, that number goes up to 70 percent. Even among conservatives, who still overwhelmingly oppose marriage equality, the number who support it has risen substantially in just four years.
And the trend of Americans’ attitudes toward equal rights could not be clearer: every year, on a number of issues -- from adoption to health benefits to hate crimes protection to housing and jobs discrimination -- support for equal rights grows. A majority of Americans now believe gay and lesbian relationships are "morally acceptable."
One day, future generations will look back on this debate with the same derision and disbelief with which we view the "debate" of segregation and interracial marriage.
Forty-three years ago, in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held:
Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law... Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.
It is too soon to know whether Perry v. Schwarzenegger ultimately will be the Loving v. Virginia of this century, granting all Americans their "basic civil rights" to marry. But whether it is the Perry case or another case that follows, that day is coming.
Some argue that now is not the time. Two wars, an economy that continues to teeter on the brink of collapse, the worst environmental crisis in history, and, let’s not forget, an opposition party that is hoping the president fails, that wants to see him impeached, that threatens to secede from the union, that does not even believe his presidency is legitimate, that encourages "Second Amendment remedies" -- in other words, now is not the time for the president to expend resources and political capital on a minority of his party, which, let’s be honest, has nowhere else to go. And besides, he is making incremental improvements, inching us slowly toward justice.
But the president himself has acknowledged that it is neither fair nor right to ask any oppressed minority to wait its turn.
For even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot -- and we will not -- put aside issues of basic equality. I greatly appreciate the support I've received from many in this room. I also appreciate that many of you don't believe progress has come fast enough. I want to be honest about that, because it's important to be honest among friends.
Now, I've said this before, I'll repeat it again -- it's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans petitioning for equal rights half a century ago.
This week, within 48 hours of reaffirming his opposition to marriage equality, the president released this statement on the 45th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act:
For those who marched bravely; who worked tirelessly; who shed their blood and gave their lives in the pursuit of freedom for every American, the Act served as the culmination of decades of work to fulfill America’s promise. And for the members of the Moses Generation -- including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, who stood alongside President Johnson when he signed the bill into law -- it was an affirmation that although the arc of the moral universe may be long, it bends toward justice.
And together let us recommit ourselves, in ways large and small, to continuing their journey to promote equality and perfect our union.
The president asked us to recommit ourselves to the journey toward a more perfect union, toward an America that does not discriminate against any of its citizens, toward a vision -- his vision -- of "a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America."
It is time for him to do the same.