Obama Throws a Crumb to the Gay Community

With two prominent gay activists -- David Mixner and blogger Andy Towle -- bowing out of a Democratic fundraising dinner to be headlined by Vice President Joe Biden later this month, the Obama administration is finally feeling the heat from the president's failure to follow through on campaign promises he made to the gay community.

Obama has backtracked on his pledge to repeal the Clinton-era "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy barring openly gay people from serving in the military. The administration has sidelined legislation to repeal the ban until 2010, with even openly gay Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) concurring with his party's decision to defer consideration of the issue.

Not only have Democrats deferred on Obama's campaign promises, but the administration has actively sought to uphold one law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which candidate Obama pledged to repeal. DOMA, signed by President Clinton in 1996, defines marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman and allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Earlier this month, Justice Department lawyers filed a legal brief in a Santa Ana, CA, federal court defending that law.

Mixner and Towle are not alone. Gay activists across the nation have become increasingly frustrated with the administration. Alan Van Capelle, the executive director of New York’s Empire State Pride Agenda, said President Obama's position on gay marriage "has been causing some problems for those of us working in the states, those who are against it are using him for cover.”

In an apparent effort to mollify those critics, many of whom gave their money and time to his election last fall, Obama signed a presidential memorandum on Wednesday night to extend benefits "to the same-sex partners of federal employees in the civil service and the foreign service within the confines of existing federal laws and statutes." After conducing internal reviews, Director of the Office of Personnel Management John Berry (who is openly gay) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have determined that the government can administer the following benefits:

For civil service employees, domestic partners of federal employees can be added to the long-term care insurance program; supervisors can also be required to allow employees to use their sick leave to take care of domestic partners and non-biological, non-adopted children. For foreign service employees, a number of benefits were identified, including the use of medical facilities at posts abroad, medical evacuation from posts abroad, and inclusion in family size for housing allocations.

However, the plan fails to extend full health care benefits to the same-sex partners of federal workers:

Elaine Kaplan, general counsel for the office of personnel management, said federal statutes dictated that many vital health care benefits be conferred only to “spouses” and children of federal employees, effectively making it a benefit of marriage as defined by the marriage act. Ms. Kaplan said the new legislation the president is supporting would remedy that prohibition. In the meantime, she said, his memorandum would cover those benefits that do not fall under the more restrictive statutory language.

While this package does not offer the full range of benefits that some had hoped it would, it is a welcome development and the first significant step toward the federal government recognizing our long-term relationships.

While some gay activists have praised the benefits package, their response has by and large been relatively restrained. "Thrilled for federal employees," Mixner remains outraged by the brief filed in support of DOMA. Other gay commentators, on both sides of the political aisle, contend the package doesn't go nearly far enough. Both blogger John Aravosis, whose left-wing Americablog is one of the leading voices of the "netroots," and Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, which bill itself as "the only national gay conservative group," have called the plan a political ploy.

Describing the benefits package as the president's "attempt to silence his critics in the gay community," LaSalvia asks, "What kind of ‘benefits plan’ includes no actual benefits?” Contending that the "White House actually admitted to the NYT that they were offering the benefits to help contain the 'growing furor among gay rights groups,'" Aravosis believes the administration came up with the proposal "on the fly."

According to the Washington Post's Joe Davidson, however, this proposal was not adopted on the fly, but grew from "seeds planted last December during a meeting between gay rights advocates and the Obama transition team." Whatever the case, the timing certainly looks suspicious, given how quickly the announcement of this package follows the filing of the brief in the DOMA case and a number of articles on the growing "frustration" of gay groups with Obama’s inaction on his campaign promises to them.

If the president's goal in presenting this benefits package was to mollify the growing number of gay activists, including many of his erstwhile supporters upset with this inaction, he has clearly failed. Even in the wake of this announcement, the outrage of some has continued unabated. There appears to be no evidence that Mixner or Towle will attend the fundraising dinner they had once planned on attending. Mixner called the move "insulting." Towle dubbed the president's announcement "damage control," doubting it would "stop the bleeding."

While many gay activists were impressed by Obama's rhetoric during the campaign, many remain unimpressed by his accomplishments in office. They see this modest proposal as little more than a bone tossed in their general direction. When it comes to keeping his promises to the gay community, President Obama has a lot in common with Bill Clinton, his most recent Democratic predecessor.

He'll defer action when there's a political cost.

All that said, while the president's announcement of this benefits package at this particular time does seem to be an attempt to deal with the political fallout from his failure to fulfill his campaign promises, it is a step in the right direction -- and a pretty significant one at that. For the first time, the federal government has recognized the reality of same-sex relationships.

While, to some, that may not be enough, it is something.