Late yesterday, in the White House's daily guidance email to the press corps, one of the items caught people off guard:
In the evening, the President will deliver brief remarks and sign a Presidential Memorandum regarding federal benefits and non-discrimination in the Oval Office. This event is pooled press.
The networks scrambled to make sense of it and the print media posted conflicting reports of what it meant. What's the difference between an Executive Order and a Presidential Memorandum? Will the extension of benefits include health care and retirement? Will the transgender community receive employment protections in the Federal Workforce? Does Obama plan to announce his plan to honor his promises to the LGBT community?
These are all great questions. Some of them have been answered through the night and others will be answered throughout the day. What is certain is that there is a limit to what the President can do with the stroke of his pen.
What is uncertain is the extent of what he can do with the power of his word. What the President says today will be far more consequential than what he does. Last year, candidate Obama issued a strong statement and his words today should be judged against the vision he laid out for the LGBT community. Here are excerpts just as a reminder:
I'm running for President to build an America that lives up to our founding promise of equality for all ‐ a promise that extends to our gay brothers and sisters. It's wrong to have millions of Americans living as second‐class citizens in this nation. And I ask for your support in this election so that together we can bring about real change for all LGBT Americans.
As your President, I will use the bully pulpit to urge states to treat
same‐sex couples with full equality in their family and adoption laws.
I support the complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act
(DOMA). Federal law should not discriminate in any way against gay and
lesbian couples, which is precisely what DOMA does. I have also called for us to
repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and I have worked to improve the Uniting
American Families Act so we can afford same‐sex couples the same rights and
obligations as married couples in our immigration system.
The next president must also address the HIV/AIDS epidemic. When it
comes to prevention, we do not have to choose between values and science.
While abstinence education should be part of any strategy, we also need to use
We also need a president who's willing to confront the stigma ‐ too often
tied to homophobia ‐ that continues to surround HIV/AIDS.
I will never compromise on my commitment to equal rights for all LGBT
Americans. But neither will I close my ears to the voices of those who still need
to be convinced. That is the work we must do to move forward together.
Americans are yearning for leadership that can empower us to reach for
what we know is possible. I believe that we can achieve the goal of full equality
for the millions of LGBT people in this country. To do that, we need leadership
that can appeal to the best parts of the human spirit. Join with me, and I will
provide that leadership. Together, we will achieve real equality for all
Americans, gay and straight alike.
So there we have it. In his own words, he reflects not only ending nearly every instance of discrimination in Federal law, but also to be vocal in ending stigmas and stereotypes. He promises to provide the leadership to make this all possible. Thus far, that leadership has been missing. In fact, his Administration has taken backward steps away from fulfilling the vision he laid out.
Today marks the first time he has spoken about the gay community since his election. That's a step forward, but only a very small step in and of itself.
Here are a few things that could make the President's remarks today a home run:
1. Extending the full range of benefits (whatever they may include) to same sex partners of Federal employees in a lasting Executive Order. According to Chuck Todd of NBC News, a Presidential Memorandum will not last past his Presidency.
2. Calling on the Congress to immediately pass legislation that would extend the balance of benefits not able to be extended via Executive Order.
3. Announcing that he will instruct the Department of Justice not to defend section 3 of DOMA, which deals with Federal benefits, that is being challenged in a federal lawsuit by the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) in Massachusetts.
4. Signing an Executive order that bans employment discrimination against transgender persons in the Federal workforce.
5. Announcing a concrete path forward on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell
6. Calling on Congress to pass the far too long delayed Employment Non-Discrimination Act and Federal Hate Crimes Legislation.
7. Urging Congress to include the Uniting American Families Act in immigration reform legislation to be considered this year.
8. Committing the National Institute of Health to undertake a new effort for the treatment of HIV/AIDS and the Department of Health and Human Services to commit to new efforts on prevention of HIV/AIDS.
It's not asking too much. It's taken this long for the White House to address our community. There is much to be done to end discrimination and this would be a great start. The President could announce everything on this list today. Don't ask, don't get.