According to Mark Joseph Stein and J. Bryan Lowder, writing at Slate (LGBT Comes to the SOTU), Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address was historic in that it contained three references to gay rights and “marks the first time a president has used the words transgender and bisexual in a State of the Union address (in addition to the explicit use of the term lesbian rather than the generic gay).”
For many on the left, it seems, keeping count of nomenclature is exceedingly important. But I’ll grant you that inclusive rhetoric can matter. More importantly, however, let’s weigh the administration’s record.
The Employee Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), then backed by many LGBT Democrats, never made it out of committee during the first two years of the Obama presidency when his party enjoyed large majorities in both houses of Congress—a sign of lack of administration interest in pushing it. But last year, the president belatedly fulfilled his 2008 campaign promise to issue an executive order barring government contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
His administration sat back and would have allowed Harry Reid to scuttle a Senate vote to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” at the end of 2010, as I’ve written about before (Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman saved the day). Subsequently, however, the Defense Department moved to successfully implement the new policy of letting gays and lesbians serve openly in the military.
Obama initially ran for president opposing gay marriage, alluding to marriage’s “religious connotation” and holding that “marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.” But in office his position evolved to support for marriage equality. And while the truly historic advances for the freedom to marry were driven by lawsuits and the courts, the administration did weigh in against the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act. After the majority ruling penned by Justice Kennedy (a Reagan appointee) finding DOMA unconstitutional, federal agencies have moved to ensure equal treatment of same-sex spouses in the areas that they regulate.
As David Boaz sums up on The National Interest website about the speech and, more broadly, Obama’s legacy:
[W]e got a sweeping vision of a federal government that takes care of us from childhood to retirement, a verbal counterpart to the Obama campaign’s internet ad about “Julia,” the cartoon character who has no family, friends, church or community and depends on government help throughout her life. … The spirit of American independence, of free people pursuing their dreams in a free economy, was entirely absent. … The president wants more and better jobs. And yet he wants to raise taxes on the savings and investment that produce economic growth and better jobs. … President Obama’s tax-spend-and-regulate policies have given us the slowest recovery since World War II. You want to help the middle class? Lift those burdens.
I appreciate the president’s inclusiveness in his rhetoric and his policies. In 2013, he paid tribute to “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” This year he cited gay marriage as “a story of freedom”—indeed, his only mention of freedom—and he touched on the deepest roots of our liberty and our civilization in this passage: “we are a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen: man and woman, young and old, black and white, Latino and Asian, immigrant and Native American, gay and straight, Americans with mental illness or physical disability.”
All in all, the Obama administration’s record on gay rights may be its only lasting positive legacy.