WASHINGTON, D.C. —The purpose of the small gathering on the second floor of the Old Executive Office Building in Washington Thursday afternoon was two-fold. First, White House Domestic Policy Chief Melody Barnes wanted to give LGBT media a “snapshot” of what the Obama administration has done, and plans to do, on LGBT issues.
And, second, nine LGBT reporters and political bloggers would get a chance to ask a question.
It was the first time any administration had arranged to deliver such a briefing to LGBT media and take questions, and some lamented that the access has come 18 months into the administration and, thus far, has not included an interview with the president himself.
But Barnes offered an earnest defense of what the Obama administration has done thus far on LGBT issues—“more than any previous administration,” she said. She pointed to the signing hate crimes legislation into law, issuing of executive memos to expedite tangible benefits where possible, and using the president’s bully pulpit in a variety of settings to advance the public’s understanding of civil rights for LGBT people.
Barnes was pressed to explain why the administration continues to defend laws in court, such as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), even though the president has repeatedly said both laws should be repealed. Barnes said it’s in part because the president is concerned about setting a precedent that would make it easier for some future administration to pick and choose which laws it would defend, and in part because the president “hasn’t made an argument” concerning the constitutionality of the laws.
“To be clear, he believes DOMA is discriminatory,” said Barnes, noting the administration has indicated so in legal briefs. “But,” said Barnes, “we believe we have an obligation to defend the law if Congress had a rational basis for passing the law.” She added that the president has been “trying to move the country forward and change the narrative” on these issues.
When it comes to prodding Congress to pass pro-LGBT laws, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), said Barnes, the administration is relying on the Congressional leadership.
“We look to the Senate leadership to also say to us, ‘These are issues we are prepared to move forward on’,” said Barnes. “They’re doing that based on a whole number of variables. And when they are talking about moving forward with ENDA, they’re also getting an indication from us that we support it.”
Pam Spaulding, a political blogger at pamshouseblend.com, told Barnes that there is a “big gulf” between what national LGBT organizations consider to be significant progress on LGBT issues and what people at the grassroots think. She suggested a briefing like this one might have gone a long way to mitigate the concern of the grassroots if it had been held earlier in the administration.
Barnes acknowledged the frustration of the grassroots, but emphasized, “We are here now, and that reflects the desire to be engaged.” She also noted that the White House AIDS czar, Jeff Crowley, has been engaging the grassroots through a series of town meetings around the country to talk about AIDS.
“There’s always a desire and effort to do better, and that’s why we are sitting here now,” said Barnes. “
The only surprise came when—in responding to a question about the relative lack of openly gay people on the president’s senior staff—Barnes credited White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel with having pushed for the hospital visitation directive. That directive, signed by President Obama, provided for the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that hospitals receiving federal funding respect the wishes of an LGBT patient in deciding who can visit them in the hospital. Emanuel has, for years, been seen as a relative obstructionist on LGBT advances—first, in the Clinton White House and, now, in this one.
“There are a number of very senior members of this administration—whether it be Rahm, Valerie [Jarrett] or me or Jim [Messina]—who are not gay or lesbian but for whom these issues are important. We have conversations and provide advice to the president on those issues. It is helpful and important to have people… who are not gay or lesbian or transgender who care about these issues and advocate for them in the White House.”
“There are LGBT senior colleagues who may not have as their portfolio specific LGBT issues,” continued Barnes, “but they come to the table with expertise on personnel, the environment, and host of other issues who do participate in these conversations, who sit at the table and bring their perspective to the conversation on a consistent basis. So while there isn’t an individual…there are many individuals who care about these issues, who drive this set of issues and think about how we move forward.”
Asked whether the White House vetted its decision concerning the DADT certification requirement with anyone in the LGBT community, Barnes answered indirectly, saying the White House “absolutely consults frequently” with the community. She pointed specifically to staffers Brian Bond and Tina Tchen in the White House Office of Public Liaison, as the point persons to ensure such consultations.
“Brian and Tina are talking to and considering and hearing the positive and negative as we go through the process of both developing policy and articulating what our policy is,” said Barnes.
“We’ve carried the ball a long, long way down the field,” said Barnes. “There’s still work to be done but we’ve carried it a long way down the field.”