The President looks heavenward from the shelf at Hudson News
I see President Obama’s face at the Hudson News shop at Penn Station, repeated row upon row, on the cover of this week’s Newsweek magazine. His expression is resolute, gazing heavenward under a rainbow halo, like a renaissance sculpture of a saint; seeking divine sanction for his cause and, judging by the set of his jaw and the glowing halo, clearly receiving it. The display text reads: “The First Gay President.”
It’s a bit of editorial hyperbole, of course. No one, except the most questionable conservative fringe-dwellers, actually think the President is gay. And, as Jim Loewen in Salon has pointed out, James Buchanan was probably there first. Of course, despite Loewen’s contention that “there can be no doubt,” that Buchanan preferred the intimate company of men, there’s really nothing more than innuendo and anachronistic speculation to go on. And the categories of “gay,” or even “homosexual” did not even exist in the same way in the 1850s as they do today. Besides… who really cares?
The Newsweek cover certainly captures the tenor of opinion in certain quarters over the President’s revelation last week that he supports marriage equality. To be sure, it was an important moment for those of us who believe that the denial of basic civil rights to Americans in most states on the basis of their sexual orientation or preference is deeply unjust. The President’s endorsement of marriage equality strengthens our cause. This is no longer a radical idea: the President of the U.S.-fricking-A himself is on our side!
The President should be commended for his statement. The passage of an Amendment to the North Carolina Constitution earlier this month that denies legal recognition to all domestic unions that are not formal marriages between one man and one woman – but especially same-sex partnerships – indicates just how high the stakes are. Coming just days after the North Carolina vote, the President’s endorsement of equality must be read as a stern rebuke of institutionalized, legal inequality. We need him on the good guys’ team and, damn it, he came through!
Yet there’s something about the celebration of the President’s comments, and the way his “principled stand” (as one Facebook friend phrased it) has been lionized this past week that doesn’t sit well with me. The Newsweek cover evokes the troubling rhetoric that the President has transcended the cold logic political calculation to take his place alongside Abraham Lincoln (to whom he has been compared) and put conscience ahead of power in the cause of equality and freedom… And I just don’t see it. What I see is political calculation.
Make no mistake: I have no reason to doubt that the President genuinely believes in marriage equality. What I question is the timing and manner of his announcement. In his Newsweek cover story, Andrew Sullivan wrestles with the same question, though ultimately celebrating the President:
“The point of the gay-rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay. It is about creating the space for people to be themselves. This has been Obama’s life’s work. And he just enlarged the space in this world for so many others, trapped in different cages of identity, yearning to be released and returned to the families they love and the dignity they deserve.”
I’m not so inclined to give the President that much credit.
For one thing, although his endorsement might give heart to progressives and validate the cause of marriage equality, it doesn’t actually change anything. Marriage is a matter for state, and not federal legislation; state legislatures can do whatever they want about marriage and neither the President nor Congress, should they be so inclined, can do a damned thing about it. North Carolina certainly demonstrated that. The President could push for a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, as he promised when running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination four years ago. The Department of Justice no longer defends DOMA in court, of course, but there has been no indication that the President has any inclination to repeal.
An argument can be made that a repeal of DOMA would stand virtually no chance of passing the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, and a legislative defeat could be costly. But that is an argument of political calculation and not of principle. If it had been a question of principle, the President had ample opportunity to introduce repeal legislation before 2011, when the Democrats had significant majorities in both the House and the Senate and the Republicans were chastened and moribund.
Indeed, the President’s endorsement of marriage equality, no matter how much he might personally believe in it, bears all the hallmarks of an orchestrated event and reeks of political calculation. This is an election year, after all, and it isn’t exactly contentious to suspect that virtually everything the President does and says between now and November with be done and said with that in mind.
I was a little perplexed when Vice President Biden came out for marriage equality on NBC’s Meet the Press a little less than a week before the President’s endorsement. My reaction, when I read about it the next morning (I don’t watch much television these days), was a combination of “there goes old loose-cannon-Biden talking off the top of his head,” and “damn, I wonder how Obama is going to spin this?” Following the President’s comments, however, it all made sense.
It is almost beyond the realm of possibility that the Vice President would have endorsed such a politically-charged issue without the President’s approval. Biden was floating a trial balloon. The North Carolina vote was in the offing, promising to both outrage and energize progressives across the country, and the White House clearly wanted to see how Biden’s comments were received before taking a stand that would harness that energy. If he had been buried under a shitstorm of controversy, you can bet that the President would have made some kind of comment about “crazy-old-Joe” and kept his mouth shut.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture of Saint Longinus, the Roman centurion who, according to legend, stabbed the crucified Jesus in the side but later converted to Christianity.
The President’s image machine wants progressives to see him as one of their saints, gazing heavenward like Bernini’s Saint Longinus, and the corporate media like ABC, NBC and CBS – but not Fox – are more than happy to help promote the icon. Despite what Fox News tells us, it’s not that they’re all part of a lamestream media establishment that kisses the feet of liberals, however, it’s because they’re all part of a media establishment that kisses the feet of celebrity.
There’s a very good reason for this. In the hunt for advertising revenues, the television networks and national print media have to provide a product that can connect consumers’ eyes with advertisers’ sales pitches. And in America’s 24-hour media culture, that product is the spectacle of political celebrity. None of the major networks would be in business very long if they couldn’t deliver the biggest political celebrity of them all. That means access, and access means playing by the rules. Sullivan, in fact, alludes to this in his anecdote about attending an Obama fundraiser in 2007 on the proviso that he promised “not to write anything.”
The kind of appearance that the President made on ABC News last week is always carefully scripted; the President’s media staff would not even have consented to the interview without first having a look at the questions. The interviewer will almost never ask what journalists often call “the necessary question,” and what hardballs they do pitch (with the subject’s consent) usually cross the plate with an apology. Something like “I’m sorry, sir, but I really have to ask this.” The subject gives his answer, and there is never a serious follow-up.
It doesn’t really matter who the political celebrity is, or whether he or she is a Democrat or a Republican; greater access invariably comes with the tacit agreement that the message will be relayed amiably and uncritically. Mike Wallace’s 1989 interview with outgoing-President Ronald Reagan is the classic of the genre. They sat comfortably, chatting intimately like old friends – these interviews are always intimate and friendly – while Wallace provided prompts to Reagan’s yarns; stories that did little else than reinforce his reasonable, down-home, beer-buddy masculine image. Despite the fact that Reagan was heading into retirement, there was no mention of Iran-Contra, the failures of SDI, stagnant economic growth or his administration’s shameful AIDS health policies.
Sitting comfortably under the soft light of ABC’s camera in the Oval Office last week, the President casually let slip to Robin Roberts that “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.” There was some tepid follow-up about the Vice President’s pre-emptive comments six days earlier, but no “necessary question.” Nothing about why his “evolution” took so long even though, when running for the Illinois Senate in 1996, he was clear that “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” Why did he have to evolve into a position that he held for sixteen years? (I know that the President claims he did not authorize the 1996 statement, but does anyone really believe that?)
The reactionaries’ reaction has been predictable enough. Fox News accused the President of declaring “War on Marriage” before moderating its rhetoric a tad. The National Review warned of the collapse of civilization that would result from “detaching one of our central institutions from its civilizing task.” There really isn’t any news there, except that Rush Limbaugh was surprisingly restrained and limited himself to a jab at the President’s family.
The President’s image machine doubtless expected as much. At the extremes, Americans’ positions on marriage equality are pretty well set in stone. But the White House is well aware that opposition has been steadily dwindling. As for the one-third of American voters whose opposition to marriage equality is a defining element of their political beliefs, they wouldn’t have been voting for the President in November anyway, so they didn’t enter into the equation.
More important are the progressives and liberals, the vast majority of whom consider marriage equality to be an essential question of civil rights. These are the voters who, over the last year or so, have been becoming increasingly disenchanted with the President over his failure to stand up to the Republican’s passionate defence of class privilege and the tepid half-measures of his health-care strategy. These were the people – myself included, though I am not an American citizen – who drank the Kool-Aid and convinced themselves in 2008 that the Senator from Illinois was as much of a progressive as they were.
The students, the activists and the young people – half of whom now have a positive view of socialism – who gave the President’s “Yes We Can!” campaign its energy and drive four years ago just might sit out this year’s election in Zuccotti Park and picket lines and occupations across the country. The Democrats know that a significant and growing majority of young voters between the ages of 18 and 44 support marriage equality. They need them more than they are afraid of offending tea-bagging rednecks.
What better way to mobilize the disaffected progressives than to show them that the President is on their side after all? The Newsweek cover accurately evokes the desired image – desired both by the President’s strategists and by a mobilized, activist Left that has been evicted and pepper-sprayed and desperately wants to believe that it has all been worth it that, change is possible. Yes we can! And now we have the leader, a resolute, saintly crusader who will lead us over the Tea Party barricades with the banner of equality flying from his lance, as we retake the White House, Congress and America!
Judging from progressives’ overwhelmingly positive and often uncritical embrace of the President’s endorsement of marriage equality, the canonization of St. Barack of the Rainbow has been enormously successful.
But here’s the thing: the President isn’t really one of us, and the spectacle of his newly-public position on LGBT rights is designed to obscure that. This is the President whose policy record – with a few notable exceptions – has been characterized by a willingness to back down from confrontations with the Republicans, even from a position of strength. The dog’s breakfast of Obamacare that emerged from congressional wrangling – when the President had the votes to get pretty much anything through Congress – is only a national health care plan if you remove the words “national” and “health care.” In the Debt Ceiling Debate last August, the President pretty much gave away the farm, caving-in to virtually every Republican demand, including an extension of Bush-era millionaire tax breaks.
Of course, the apologists say that the President is wisely seeking bipartisan support; that he is playing to the Vital Center of American politics, as all good liberal Democrats have done since the end of the Second World War. Unfortunately, the Republican Party of the 21st century is dominated by racist, misogynistic, homophobic, crypto-fascist religious fanatics so far to the Right that the center of American politics has shifted. Obama’s center is what we used to call the Right.
The true perversity of the President’s position is being revealed in the Wisconsin recall election, where progressives and state Democrats are campaigning to remove reactionary Governor Scott Walker from office. The Cheesehead fuhrer is something of a national hero to the extreme right, and the national Republican Party is pouring millions into Wisconsin to keep him in office. But neither the national Democrats nor the President’s election team seem inclined to join the fight, despite Wisconsin progressive’s desperate pleas for help.
Here is an opportunity to stand firm and roll back Tea Party fascism, but the President – who, after all, is the effective leader of his party – just isn’t interested.
This is a president who regularly orders the assassination of foreign opponents, who has expanded the use of drones in a campaign of extra-judicial murder. And, despite the constitutional prohibition on bills of attainder, his government maintains that it is perfectly legitimate to summarily execute American Citizens without trial.
This is the president who has mutely presided over the largest expansion of the state surveillance apparatus in American history, in which the post-911 state of emergency has become business-as-usual. By signing the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, he arrogated the power to arbitrarily detain American citizens indefinitely without trial. The basic common-law right of habeas corpus that the generation of 1776 fought and died for has been superseded by raisons d’etat. The good news is that these provisions of the act have been temporarily blocked, but we’ll have to see how long that lasts.
With an election coming up, the President and his strategists hope the bright glow of hagiography will distract you from all of that. They know that progressives have grown increasingly uneasy about a presidency that seems eager to accommodate the Right and their corporate sponsors, while pursuing a ruthless imperial policy. The President’s endorsement of marriage equality is low-hanging fruit; it comes with very little real political risk while offering a vast potential political benefit. His image machine hopes that we’ll think “he stood up for LGBT rights” and overlook all the rest.
I was delighted that the President publicly endorsed marriage equality last week. It needed to be said, and it irrevocably installs this issue into the very centre of mainstream politics in the United States. But on the figurative morning after, seeing the canonization of Barack Obama in full flood, I find that I feel a little dirty.