SAN FRANCISCO – Faced with growing anger among gay and lesbian supporters, President Barack Obama is expected tonight to extend health care and other benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.
His action is a significant advance for gay rights and comes just days after the Obama administration sparked outrage by filing a legal brief defending the law forbidding federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Obama opposed the 1996 law during the presidential campaign.
As a candidate for president, Obama was a staunch supporter of gay and lesbian rights. He not only called for repealing the federal Defense of Marriage Act but also the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which forbids openly gay men and women from serving in the armed forces. He promised to help lead the fight.
Since taking office, however, Obama disappointed many gay activists by not just keeping silent but, lately, defending some of the very policies he criticized. After months of grumbling, the anger exploded in public denunciations this week after the administration filed its legal brief in Orange County federal court.
In a statement the day of their filing, administration attorneys said Obama considers the marriage ban discriminatory and wants it rescinded but is legally obliged to defend the law as long as it remains in force.
While there is some sympathy for the president’s position – “he has enormous stuff on his plate that requires a lot of political capital,” said Steve Elmendorf, a gay Democratic strategist – many believe the concerns of gays and lesbians are again being shunted to second- and third-tier status.
Ken Sherrill, a Hunter College political scientist and gay activist, recalled how the Clinton administration started with great hope but ended in disappointment when the president, for tactical reasons, retreated on gay rights. Clinton approved both the marriage bill and the policy preventing gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. “There’s a fear that Obama will prove to be a heartbreaker as well,” Sherrill said.
A White House spokesman said Tuesday the president was not retreating from his campaign promises. “The president remains fully committed to the … proposals he made,” Adam Abrams said. “We have already begun work on many of these issues.”
Tonight’s Oval Office ceremony casts a bright light on the president’s action and seemed intended to tamp down the anger he faces within the gay community. The extent of benefits coverage and the cost to the government was not immediately available.
Obama has reached out in other ways. He named openly gay men to head the Export-Import Bank and the Office of Personnel Management. The State Department promised to give partners of gay and lesbian diplomats benefits such as diplomatic passports and language training.
But critics say those gestures are meager beside the stack of grievances that started accumulating even before Obama took office. He picked pastor Rick Warren, a prominent opponent of same-sex marriage, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Then came the decision to discharge Dan Choi, an Army linguist, after he said on cable TV that he was gay.
The administration also intervened with the Supreme Court and opposed efforts to overturn the law forbidding gays from serving openly in the military. The justices sided with the president, declining to hear a constitutional challenge. White House officials say they want Congress to repeal the policy outright instead of having to intervene case by case.
Nothing, however, matches the outrage provoked by last week’s court filing in Santa Ana supporting the Defense of Marriage Act.
“You have some appointments that have been good and a proclamation,” said Sherrill, who has written extensively on the history of the gay rights movement. “And then two tangible areas where the administration has done something wrongheaded and offensive. Doing nothing at all would have been a helluva lot better.”