Political Animal


June 28, 2011 11:15 AM Advancing the cause of civil rights

By Steve Benen

The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen devotes his column today to praising New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) achievement on marriage equality. There’s no doubt the governor deserves the praise, and I’m delighted to see him receive great accolades.

But Cohen goes a step further, using praise for Cuomo to condemn President Obama.

It has been forever since a single politician did so much to advance what is, after all, a civil rights cause. Certainly, Barack Obama has never done so. Aside from his own presidency — no small matter, I grant you — he has been Mr. On-The-Other-Hand, a man so contained he is his own political sump hole, into which hot issues just disappear.

We talked yesterday about the flaws in the comparison between Cuomo and the president, so let’s put that aside.

When it comes to same-sex marriage, obviously the president is not yet where he needs to be. Obama’s position is “evolving,” and I’m extremely confident that he’ll support marriage equality in the not-too-distant future, but if Cohen and others want to criticize him for being too slow to do the right thing, I’ll gladly agree.

But to say the president has “never” advanced civil rights, and has simply allowed hot issues to “disappear,” is both wrong and lazy.

Cohen wouldn’t even have to look very hard to get the facts — the White House has a page on its website, which Cohen should have taken a few seconds to look at, devoted to the administration’s achievements on civil rights, and after two-and-a-half years in office, there are some important breakthroughs:

* The President signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, restoring basic protections against pay discrimination for women and other workers.

* President Obama pushed for the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in his first State of the Union address, and followed through to sign the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 into law.

* President Obama signed a memorandum expanding federal benefits for the same-sex partners of Foreign Service and executive branch government employees.

* The President signed into law the FY2010 National Defense Authorization Act which included the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

* The President issued a Presidential Memorandum directing the HHS Secretary to ensure that those hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid funds will give gay and lesbian patients and their families the compassion, dignity and respect they deserve in difficult times, as well as widows and widowers with no children, members of religious orders, and others whom otherwise may not have been able to receive visits from good friends and loved ones who are not immediate relatives, or select them to make decisions on their behalf in case of incapacitation.

* The President signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences and eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.

* Signed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 providing funding and statutory authorities for the settlement agreements reached in the Cobell lawsuit, brought by Native Americans; the Pigford II lawsuit, brought by African American farmers; and four separate water rights suits, brought by Native American tribes.

This is not to say the work is complete, and one can hope Obama does even more, especially on marriage. But after two-and-a-half years in office, this is the start of a record the president can be proud of.

Richard Cohen makes it sound as if Obama has ignored civil rights altogether. That’s absurd.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • 6079smithW on June 28, 2011 11:12 AM:

    "wrong and lazy" = nice summation of every Cohen column, ever. The guy is a total waste of space. The Washington Post employs this guy, Gerson, George Will, Krauthammer ... you'd think they'd be embarrassed that the brightest bulb is actually Gerson.

  • FlipYrWhig on June 28, 2011 11:15 AM:

    Doesn't Richard Cohen have a track record of sexual harassment? This git wouldn't know "civil rights" if they repeatedly brushed up against him in a newspaper office.

  • walt on June 28, 2011 11:23 AM:

    While I agree Cohen is a problematic messenger, he correctly gets at the core issue with Obama. He doesn't take the kind of risks that define real leadership. Instead, he "leads from behind". Now, this is often a good thing in that he doesn't expend political capital on doomed projects. But at some point, it would help if he actually got in front of an issue where the vanguard already is. Obama's problem is the perception of weakness. By playing extra careful, he feeds and compounds that perception. The presidency is too important a prize to waste cowering in the Oval Office. Please, Mr President, show some passion. The shriekers on the right are going to hate you anyway. Welcome their hate and show them who's boss.

  • Eeyore on June 28, 2011 11:23 AM:

    I've taken some flak from my cohorts in the LGBT community for defending Obama's record. Some (particularly younger folk who have never lived in an era where gays were universally loathed) are mad because Obama didn't wave a magic wand and instantly make full equality in every way a reality.

    I take a longer view on all of this (my privilege as I approach troll-dom) - I look on how far we've come in my lifetime. Forty years ago when I came out I never would have dreamed that we'd have a black president taking heat for not moving faster on gay marriage.

  • SPK on June 28, 2011 11:33 AM:

    If you think this was bad. You should read Maureen Dowd's screed today.


  • c u n d gulag on June 28, 2011 11:39 AM:

    Is he still alive?

    I know he's no longer relevant.

    Who, outside of Broders old pals in DC reads him?

    I remember a long, long time ago, shortly after we rode dinosaurs like SUV's, that Cohen was a pretty decent liberal columnist.

    Now, he's some codger who's steeped in DC Village rhetoric, and who's called upon to pop up like a Jack-in-the-Box at will, and represent the left, which he hasn't in decades, while attacking the left.

    He's like a teabag left in a cup for over 20 years - dried up, no taste, limp, and useless.

  • Jim on June 28, 2011 11:42 AM:

    Richard Cohen[...]ís absurd.
    Everything else is superfluous.

    I think people who talk about Obama "not taking risks" need to get out of the blogosphere bubble. Just because you might not like, for whatever reason, the Stimulus, the ACA, the Detroit bail-out, these were hard-fought, controversial moves, they cost Obama in Congress (Blue Dogs, erstwhile moderate Republicans who are so afraid of the Tea Baggers, Jim DeMint and their own shadows that they are now filibustering bills they once co-sponsored), in the media and with low-information voters who think they know that the reason the economy hasn't recovered is because Obama "over-reached". They couldn't define that phrase, but they heard those smart people on TV say it, and the economy still sucks, so it must be true. It's not about "the shriekers on the right", it's about the morons in the middle, and in the media.

  • berttheclock on June 28, 2011 11:44 AM:

    This reminds me of segments of the excellent "Civil War" series by Ken Burns. Those segments featured an African-American woman, who was a historian. She was highly critical of Lincoln for not following the advice of Frederick Douglas and freeing the slaves, immediately, after the firing on Ft Sumter. She felt Lincoln was very late to the party. She seemed unaware of the political problems Lincoln was facing in trying to save the Union in 1861. She failed to comment on the number of Union troops who deserted following the Emancipation Proclamation. She failed to understand the evolution of Lincoln concerning the slaves. Presidents do not recieve Magic Wands when they are sworn into office. Zealots of any cause want to see immediate results

  • hornblower on June 28, 2011 11:45 AM:

    Richard Cohen, Maureen Dowd are irrelevant to the body politic. Few if anyone reads their stuff. The idea that people buy newspapers to read columnists is very outdated.
    What Mr. Obama has to do with gay marriage is beyond me. Marriage is a state issue. His plate is full enough.

  • June on June 28, 2011 11:47 AM:

    When I read comments like @Walt's, I just have to shake my head and say "what does a brother have to do?" I predict history will record Pres. Obama as one of the most effective, strongest presidents in our nation's history - I would like to know what president of the last 50 years has accomplished more than Obama has within the first two, two-and-a-half years of his presidency - while dealing with on-the-brink crisis, after on-the-brink crisis, and an opposition that is a formalized collection of traitors - and yet, we still have those who insist he "leads from behind." That's just unbelievable to me.

  • DTTM on June 28, 2011 11:47 AM:

    Walt, I must disagree. True, the President often is cool in demeanor, but not in the least does he cower.

    A prime example:

    He risked the credibility of his entire presidency by going ahead with the incredibly dangerous Bin Laden raid though many counciled against it (they didn't even know for certain that Bin Laden was there).

    He is a smart, very confident guy who knows exactly what SOBS the Republicans are, but must work with them to try and advance his agenda against their strategy of NO. I'd say he has achieved quite a bit considering the organization, the money, and the favorable presscorp the GOP has.

    If he had thrown his support more forcefully for the gay marriage bill in NY, the repugs in NY would very likely not have supported it.

  • DAY on June 28, 2011 11:48 AM:

    I assume "Richard Cohen" is the pen name of Karl Rove.

    As for the rest of the opinion writers, they know that screed attracts eyeballs- and the cash in their owner's pockets, be to buy a newspaper, or click an on line ad.

  • Alli on June 28, 2011 11:50 AM:

    You know who took risks? Anthony Weiner.

    In any case, Cuomo didn't take risks. He had nothing to lose by getting gay marriage passed.

  • Mark on June 28, 2011 11:57 AM:

    Walt says, "Now, this is often a good thing in that he doesn't expend political capital on doomed projects. But at some point, it would help if he actually got in front of an issue where the vanguard already is."

    Walt, I think you have his motives wrong and understand his strategy incorrectly. Tell me, what would the cause of gay marriage gain with Obama's vocal support? People inclined to support Obama and follow his endorsement are in many ways already there with gay marriage.

    Those conservatives and skeptical independents may well become LESS sympathetic to gay marriage if Obama voices support. We're better off if they are thinking of the direct human consequences -- through people they know -- rather than as a political issue.

    The one hole is the African American community, where Obama's voice could make a difference. But I'm going to trust him to have better instincts on how to make the change there than I do.

  • 6079smithW on June 28, 2011 12:01 PM:

    Yes, Obama should spend more time leading from the front, like he did on the Guantanamo prison. What a great success that was, especially when the Senate voted 99-0 (Ted Kennedy was sick) to cut him off at the knees.

    God forbid he learn a lesson from that, and get things done instead, like universal health care, gays in the military, economic rescue bailouts and stimulus, gas mileage standards, carbon limits on utilities, yadda yadda what a wimp!

  • John Dillinger on June 28, 2011 12:10 PM:

    I have problems with Obama's lack of risk taking on economic matters and, to a lesser extent, foreign policy. But given the overall trend of the country--or at least large parts of it--on social issues, I don't see the value in a President using finite political capital in pushing social issues. Riding the tide is enough. Unlike in the 50s and 60s civil rights battles with the Southern Dems, the entrenched power in the Congress is not in the social arena, it is in the economic sphere. That is where we need a President to lead.

  • Alli on June 28, 2011 12:11 PM:

    As I watch and see others giving so much praise to Cuomo and trashing Obama who has done a lot for civil rights in his two+ years, I have to wonder if this double standard is racism or that some of these people regard gay marriage as the only civil rights worth caring about. There is no fucking way that Cuomo tops Obama on civil rights. No fucking way. Anyone who looks at their record and says otherwise is a fucking liar. Yeah, a lot of f-words because these articles are total bullshit. I've always heard that Blacks have to do twice as much to be considered as good as his white counterpart but this is just fucking ridiculous.

  • walt on June 28, 2011 12:16 PM:

    While I appreciate the solidarity of the groupthink in this forum, I think many of you miss the core problem with the Obama presidency. It's not that he hasn't accomplished good things, it's that he's the prisoner of his own cautiousness. Every moment in history is a crossroads. And if you think it's more important to coddle Wall Street, to solidify the national security state at the expense of civil liberties, or to equivocate on a civil rights issue, or to compromise in advance of tough negotitations with Republicans, then you're not advancing your political position so much as hiding behind its perceived authority. The power of the president must be asserted, claimed, and advanced in lieu of letting others whittle it away. Republicans now feel confident that they can roll Obama on virtually every issue on the table. How did this happen? Drop your pom poms for a moment and ponder how this came to pass. Helpful hints: bully pulpit, dust, gathering.

  • low-tech cyclist on June 28, 2011 12:24 PM:

    Let me mention something that's happening at the Census Bureau today. From the broadcast message:

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    From the Desk of Roy P. Castro, Chief, Equal Employment Opportunity Office....

    Please join the Census Bureauís 2011 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Pride and Employee Awareness Committee in celebrating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Pride and Employee Awareness Month during June 2011. Our theme for this yearís awareness program is "We Count: Itís a Normal Distribution, Not a Standard Deviation". To commemorate (LGBT) Pride and Employee Awareness Month, the Census Bureau is sponsoring the following closing event.

    Closing Event - [Rescheduled]

    June 28, 2011

    Time: 11:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
    Place: Census Library

    Keynote Speaker

    Amanda R. Simpson
    Senior Technical Advisor
    Office of the Under Secretary
    Bureau of Industry and Security
    U. S. Department of Commerce

    In January 2010, Amanda Simpson gained national media attention when she became the first openly transgender woman appointed by a President Ė becoming senior technical adviser to the Department of Commerceís under secretary for the Bureau of Industry and Security. Simpson holds degrees in physics, engineering and business administration, and has worked as a test pilot and managed missile systems programs. She has also influenced change in LGBT policies and guideline reform in the workplace.

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Now, don't you think that, even in January 2010, a Presidential appointment of an openly transgender person was a less than completely safe thing to do? I agree that Obama should be taking stronger stands on a good number of issues and could stick his neck out a bit more than he does, but to say he always leads from behind is, in a word, bullshit.

  • Jim on June 28, 2011 12:38 PM:

    While I appreciate the solidarity of the groupthink in this forum

    Oh, Walt. If only we could all be as smart and courageous as you. You, like, get it, man! You are so keepin' it real!

    Since I'm not smart like you, Walt, could you explain to me how asserting, claiming, and advancing the power of the presidency will circumvent the filibuster? Could you explain to dim guy like me how Obama is going to bully pulpit Claire McCaskill, Ben Nelson, Jim Webb, Joe Lieberman and quite a few less usual suspects (Dianne Feinstein, for example, or my own timorous Blue tinted Hounds Bennet and Udall) into not going along with Republicans for reasons, variously, of economic stupidity, political cowardice, and simple spite?

    And since you mention Wall Street, Walt, I'm sure I don't have to point out to a smart, independent thinker like you the role that Wall St billionaires played getting gay marriage passed by simple majorities. Nah, it was all about Cuomo being "tough".

    Keep the faith, bro. The Republic needs more heroic blog posters like you.

  • emjayay on June 28, 2011 12:44 PM:

    While like a lot of people I agree with walt above, the comment about the Census Bureau reminds me that Obama is the first president to issue a proclamation for GLBT Pride Month, in 2009. So for three years it's been an official federal guvmint deal.

    Visiting the Statue of Liberty? Check out the museum lobby display for GLBT Pride Month. OK, I was randomly assigned (employee joke) to produce it. This display is seen by thousands of people from all over the country and world every day.

  • walt on June 28, 2011 1:52 PM:

    Jim, I could believe, like you apparently do, that Obama is a hapless victim of circumstances beyond his control. And it's a very seductive story since it relieves him (and us) of the responsibility of even trying to do what is right. But Obama's bipartisan enchantment was his own, not ours. It was a major political miscalculation that now threatens his re-election. A too-small stimulus, a pandering to Wall Street's power, and a refusal to effectively deploy the bully pulpit has led to an impasse bordering on national collapse.

    You either ride this bronco called power or you die trying. History is going to judge us regardless. Making excuses for our failure here only underscores the basic problem. Liberalism is too cautious to survive.

  • SYSPROG on June 28, 2011 2:53 PM:

    Wow Walt...liberalism is too cautious to survive? REALLY? Do you read history? It may appear 'cautious' now but I wonder if it's because the way the game is being played. We certainly have done more things correct than not in the last 2+ years. Yes, Obama's bipartisan love affair is his own (oh and that pesky Clinton) but it's one we bought into. AND certainly better than the alternative. That being said, history tells us how 'exciting' liberalism was in the 20's, 30's and 40's! It just neglects to always tell us what a hard slog it was to get there.

  • JW on June 28, 2011 3:09 PM:

    I don't count myself among the ranks of those who consider Obama particularly timid. Rather, I think he is at-heart a Reagan democrat (small, barely perceptible "d"). The fact that Reagan midwifed todays GOP is something he's perfectly at ease with.

    That said, and as noted by others, it could be that had he jumped feet first into New York's fight it might have meant the kiss of death for the legislation. I don't understand NY politics enough to have formed an opinion one way or the other, but I don't doubt he applauds its passage.

    Personally, I'm far more disgusted with his sideline seat as attacks on unions and collective bargaining have accelerated. There his oft stated admiration of Reagan has seemingly morphed into a sinister emulation, one that is wreaking real damage on the country and the very voters that elected him to office in 2008. His silence there is inexcusable.

  • Mnemosyne on June 28, 2011 3:21 PM:

    The power of the president must be asserted, claimed, and advanced in lieu of letting others whittle it away.

    So when the president asserted his claim that he should be allowed to continue the national security policies of the Bush administration so they could not be whittled away by Congress or the courts, you applauded that, right? Under your construction, that assertion of executive power was a step in the right direction.

  • grandpajohn on June 28, 2011 6:24 PM:

    Every day we need to repeat the following for soome of our progressive folks in the hope that eventually for a few of them it just might sink into the inner recesses of their thought processes
    Obama was elected to serve as our president, not dictator

  • exlibra on June 28, 2011 7:11 PM:

    Anyone who wanted a "jump first, think later" firebrand as their President, had an option of voting for McCain. Me, I think there's a reason that almost every language/culture has some version of the saying "festina lente" (hurry slowly). I think in English it's "slow and steady wins the race". With *steady* being the key word, when it comes to Obama.

    "itraiddr for" asks Captcha. Nope, I'd never trade steady Obama for temperamental McGrump

  • June on June 28, 2011 8:20 PM:

    Walt, I have to say your posts are a good example of a curious pattern I've noticed in comments threads lately. The topic is some bit of ridiculous/heinous behavior by Republicans, but in the comments, that gets turned around into "Republican bad behavior is Obama's fault, because Obama is weak." How much sense does that really make? Obama should also be held responsible for the tactics of GOP rumdums? As far as I'm concerned, Republican's disgusting behavior is not a "core" problem whose responsibility lies with Obama.

    So, Obama does not leap buildings in a single bound to the satisfaction of "the disappointed." This is the guy who went in and single-handedly took out (politically speaking) an entire room of Republicans live and in living color on global television, and who HAS used his bully pulpit again and again to make the case for progressive policies.

    When you say: "A too-small stimulus, a pandering to Wall Street's power, and a refusal to effectively deploy the bully pulpit has led to an impasse bordering on national collapse," I have to say that's utterly ridiculous. The biggest banks all paid back the TARP funds early because they wanted the TARP restrictions put in place by the Obama administration off their backs. Wall Street is still yelping at the moon over the finance reform Obama championed; many a hedge fund star is now facing serious jail time because of the SEC vigorously going after "Wall Street," etc. As for the Recovery Act, even Krugman, who opined daily about it being too small, admitted there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell of a larger one being passed by Congress. And Obama recently used the bully pulpit in a major way to call out Republicans on economic policy - remember how Paul Ryan cried and whined for weeks about it?

    Yes, I would love to see Obama out-and-out slap the GOP upside the head more often, but that's not his style. That doesn't mean I confuse that with timidity.

  • Texas Aggie on June 29, 2011 10:35 AM:

    Speaking of tea baggers, the list of accomplishments that Steve presents is pretty weak tea. First of all, scratch any of the "signed the _____ bill that ...." It isn't a great accomplishment to sign a bill unless you've put a lot of effort into getting something passed over a lot of opposition.

    Then don't include actions that are mere add ons to something a lot more important that didn't receive any significant opposition.

    And don't claim that signing a bill that makes crack cocaine more of a crime than powder cocaine is some sort a civil rights triumph just because it doesn't make crack cocaine a LOT more of a crime.

    The only things that I see as valid in the list are the Lily Ledbetter Act because Obama did propose it and pushed for it. In the same category is the repeal of DADT.