Monday, August 3, 2009

Obama and Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Political Hot Air?

The military is preparing to discharge another decorated service member because he is gay. Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach faces discharge after a civilian disclosed his sexual identity to military personnel. Although Fehrenbach did not "tell" the military about his sexuality, he could still lose his job and benefits that attach to it, including a pension and health care.

Is Obama Serving "Hot Air" on This Issue?
President Obama says that he opposes the military's anti-gay policy, and during his campaign he promised to seek the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Obama, however, has not moved on this or many other promises he made regarding GLBT rights.

Although politics involves compromises and strategies, President Obama has consistently compromised or remained silent on GLBT issues. During his presidential campaign Obama opposed the Defense of Marriage Act (along with DADT), which he described as unfair. Earlier this year, however, the Department of Justice filed a controversial brief that defends the legitimacy of the statute. The brief makes the specious claim that Congress enacted DOMA to save money, rather than discriminate against same-sex married couples.

After GLBT activists condemned the brief, Obama scheduled a White House meeting with many of them. The event coincided with the anniversary of New York City's Stonewall Riots, a significant historical milestone in the development of GLBT social movements. During the White House event, Obama defended his position on GLBT rights, and he stated that he was "already working with the Pentagon and members of the House and the Senate on how we'll go about ending this policy, which will require an act of Congress."

Even though Obama has stated that he is "working with" members of Congress to repeal DADT, the extent of his efforts remains unclear. Recently, Representative Alcee Hastings of Florida suggested that Obama is saying much more than he is doing regarding the repeal of DADT.

In a formal statement posted on his website, Hastings said that as a result of pressure from members of Congress and from the White House, he withdrew a proposed amendment to a defense funding bill that would have banned the use of money to "investigate or discharge" military personnel who reveal their sexual orientation.

Hastings also says that in late June, he and 76 other members of Congress sent Obama a letter requesting that he work with them to repeal DADT; according to Hastings, Obama never responded to the letter.

Fehrenbach, who faces discharge from the Air Force, attended the June meeting that Obama hosted for advocates of GLBT rights. Fehrenbach met Obama and told him that he faced dismissal. Obama promised that "we are going to get this done." After the meeting, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the Obama administration was trying to make DADT more "humane," including possibly declining to discharge individuals who, like Fehrenbach, are "outed by a third party." Today, however, Fehrenbach remains subject to dismissal.

Final Thoughts: The Power of Politics
I completely accept the proposition that any changes in this area must result from strategies that might include compromise and patience. I also believe that Hastings, who represents a very liberal district in which many GLBT individuals reside, was engaging in generous amount of political grandstanding for his constituents when he proposed the measure to defund the enforcement of DADT.

Nevertheless, I do not share the opinion of writer Jackson Williams, who, in an article published by the tirelessly pro-Obama Huffington Post, contends that Hastings was "foolish" for raising the issue of DADT while Obama is struggling to pass health care. The number of excuses that Obama and his supporters have offered to justify his tepid approach to GLBT rights is increasing. The economy, the wars, inaction by Congress, and now health care all render GLBT rights trivial and complicated. Whatever happened to multi-tasking?

The wars will not end in the foreseeable future, and the economy will remain in a precarious state for some time -- according to Obama himself. Furthermore, the passage of health care reform will not retire the issue because any changes will require implementation.

Furthermore, the excuses that Obama and his supporters offer to justify inaction on GLBT rights conflict with many of the best reasons for ending anti-gay discrimination, including arguments that Obama accepted in the past. For example, Obama and his supporters contend that the wars and national security require a delay in the repeal of DADT. Obama, however, previously argued that repealing DADT is important for national security because the policy deprives the armed forces of talented individuals. Obama and his supporters also argue that repealing DADT cannot occur until the government stabilizes the economy. Enforcing the policy, however, deprives people of jobs, and during a time of high unemployment, this is extremely problematic. Persons who condemn Hastings for pressing the matter during health care debates conveniently neglect to mention that the enforcement of DADT causes many service members to lose health benefits.

More importantly, as I have previously argued on Dissenting Justice (and elsewhere), social movements must push politicians to take positions. This "pushing" includes strategies like the one Hastings recently employed. Hastings has now taken a hard stance on the issue, and he has formally "called out" Obama for taking a conservative line. As a result of this exchange, the stakes will be higher for Obama in the future. If he continues to dance around GLBT issues, then the level of disappointment among his liberal base will continue to rise, which will undermine his reputation as a trustworthy advocate. Eventually, Obama must deliver something tangible to his liberal base -- just as Hastings has done. Placing pressure upon moderate politicians like Obama, who claim to support GLBT issues, likely represents the only viable path to real change.


Anonymous said...

Why can't Obama just issue a Presidential Order. Alos he is the Commander in Chief. He can just give a military order to repeal it.

Aspasia said...

@Anonymous: If I'm not mistaken such an Order can be reversed with a succeeding President. What I've heard suggested by others in the LGBT community is that Obama should issue an Order for the short term to stop DADT's enforcement and then press for the actual legislation to change DADT. Legislation is a lot more difficult to change than Presidential or Military Orders.

But don't QFT that.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Anonymous: I have written on this before -- and actually included a passage on it in this article, but deleted it due to space consideration. DADT is a STATUTE (plus regulations by the military). The president cannot repeal a statute; only Congress can do this. Ergo, the president cannot repeal DADT.

By contrast, when Truman issued the series of orders that ended segregation in the military, the federal statute only PERMITTED but did not mandate segregation. The armed forces, however, utilized this authority and mandated segregation. AS commander-in-chief, Truman was able to order an end to segregation. He clearly worked with Congress and social movements, but the order came from his desk. Things are a little different in this setting.

Having said this, the president could consider order military personnel to utilize discretion when enforcing DADT. In the past, they have done so. For example, some individuals have been given the option of a resigning or getting an honorable discharge (which preserves their benefits). Obama could come up with rules that would make enforcement more sluggish. Still, this would not get rid of DADT.

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