Barack Obama was elected to bend history, not bend to the prevailing wisdom. He has steadily pursued that challenging course. But after several remarkable weeks that manifested "the fierce urgency of now" on a broad range of issues, he must prove that a president can accomplish more than one big thing at a time.
In the midst of upheaval in Iran and crisis in North Korea, two domestic issues in particular demand his attention. On both, the conventional counsel insists that the president should go slow—putting gay rights on a back burner and postponing health-care reform for another day or year—which might well mean another decade.
Obama consciously decided to put off his campaign promises on gay rights until the battles over health care, and perhaps energy, are concluded. His White House advisors, particularly the veterans of Clinton's beleaguered first year, tend to look at gay rights through a rear-view mirror. However, the rear view is wrong. It's no longer 1993; the country has moved on, with a substantial majority now ready to accept gays in the military.
A version of postponement might have worked—with Obama buying time and maintaining credibility among gays—if he had issued a "stop loss" order ending the discharge of gay service members while allowing the Pentagon to proceed with a longer-term review of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The president could have justified this on grounds of military need. The nation can ill afford to lose another gay service member with skills in Arabic or other esoteric subjects.
The gay community would have viewed such a stop loss order, which is entirely the president's prerogative, as tangible progress, and as reassurance that it could afford to wait on repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Orwellian statute signed in high election season by Bill Clinton. Among other blatant injustices, DOMA denies basic federal benefits to same-sex couples.
Instead, the Obama Justice Department filed a brief in federal court defending DOMA. The explanation was that the Justice Department has to defend every congressional enactment—which is untrue Constitutionally or historically. A more careful claim would have stated that Justice must support laws that are arguably valid—not all laws. Then the administration could have submitted a brief that was narrow and technical to avoid association with the law's most odious aspects.
Incredibly, the brief the administration did offer up sounded like it was drafted by George W. Bush's ideologues. It compared gay relationships to incest and contended that the government had a legitimate interest in saving money by denying benefits to gay partners—a gothic rationalization that could have been deployed equally well to argue against school integration as a drain on public resources. This ugly document was either intentional—thus, inexplicable—or it reflects a lazy, insensitive Justice Department where top officials barely reviewed the department's argument.
The president could have admitted that the brief was a mistake; that kind of admission has served him and other presidents well. But his make good was a limited nondiscrimination order for federal employees—which excluded health-care coverage for same-sex partners because of DOMA. The move failed to bank the fires of discontent. A Democratic constituency is now up in arms, withholding contributions to the party, and planning a massive march on Washington as a potentially adversarial civil-rights movement. Vice President Joe Biden will be left to pick up the pieces at an LGBT fundraiser this week.
Last week also brought the pundit-proclaimed end of the Obama honeymoon, largely based on a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll that reported the president's job approval falling from 61 percent to 56 percent. This predictable story line won't amount to much. (The same survey showed the Republicans at an all-time low.) Obama will be judged by results—first of all, on the economy, where progress is building and success seems likely. Until then, doubts are inevitable and will be registered in polls of the moment.
The same poll found that the public overwhelmingly favors health reform. Here, the president has been appropriately active—and must continue pressing forward without delay. Fortunately, Obama understands that speed is essential—if only to keep distortions from overwhelming the truth, as happened to the Clinton plan.
The Republicans recently pressed the Congressional Budget Office to "score" the fiscal impact of incomplete legislation in the process of being drafted by two Senate committees. Cost estimates ranged from $1 trillion to $1.6 trillion over 10 years—daunting figures, though they did not take account of the trillion dollars of offsetting budget savings proposed by Obama—or of the savings from preventive health, employer responsibility for coverage, or a public entity that would compete with private insurers to hold costs down.
The Republicans gleefully jumped on the numbers. They don't mind spending $2 trillion or 3 trillion dollars to kill people in Iraq for a few years; they just don't want to spend a bit less to save lives in America over the next few decades. Yet as they brandish their exaggerated cost estimates, they nonetheless oppose the public option that would rein in the costs they claim to abhor. That incoherence reveals the depths of their dishonesty.
The president—and if they have any sense, Democrats in Congress—won't give Republicans the time they need to kill reform. Publicly and persistently, Obama must show that the price tag is reasonable and push for an effective public option—which 72 percent of Americans favor, according to the latest New York Times/CBS poll. The issue isn't just covering the uninsured, but preventing a relentless rise in premiums and co-payments for those who already have insurance. And the president has plenty of room to persuade; by an overwhelming margin, people trust him and the Democrats on health care—not the Republicans.
Obama's challenge is private as well as public. To move quickly, he'll have to negotiate adroitly with the members of his own party in Congress, some of whom seem more intent on serving special interest contributors than the public interest. To win congressional support, Obama may be tempted to yield to an idea he vigorously campaigned against—taxing existing, supposedly "generous" health-care benefits. This conflicts with a pledge that is absolutely vital to the cause of reform—that people can keep the coverage they already have. The tax idea is a poison pill. Although John McCain advocated it in 2008, Republicans would turn on a dime to kill any bill that includes it.
So far, the president has navigated the shoals of change with extraordinary skill. The pharmaceutical industry, once regarded as a formidable obstacle to reform, has just agreed to free up $80 billion in federal funds by cutting the price of prescription drugs for seniors and others in government health programs. The industry is now supporting universal health coverage.
In the campaign, regardless of the turmoil of any particular news cycle, Obama coolly maintained his course and went about his business. He did it again as president throughout the hand-wringing about the fate of his economic recovery package. In his radio and Internet address last Saturday, the president showed a similar cool—confidently, almost matter-of-factly stating that he would sign health-care reform in October. The Republicans will stall, but he's set the date and he has the public support he needs to prevail.
Reform legislation will be a defining test of his presidency. He will pass it when the right bill—including a viable public option—has passed the Congress. Then, as John Kennedy did when he proposed sweeping civil-rights legislation in 1963, Obama will have a moral obligation to take up the gay rights agenda that he has postponed. The first African-American President, who was born in 1961 when a revolution for equality was under way, will face another decisive test—whether to keep the promise of his campaign and his life by vindicating the full civil rights of all Americans.