Yesterday, Barack Obama released an open letter about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender equality, stating that “it’s wrong to have millions of Americans living as second-class citizens in this nation.” Obama is broadly committed to issues of special importance to gays, from advocating benefits for domestic partners of federal employees to supporting equal treatment for same-sex couples under immigration law to fighting HIV infection in prisons. But there’s also a larger context to his opposition to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and his desire to completely repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. Obama’s doing a little coming out of his own — as an anti-Clintonian liberal.
Obama has long maintained that Bill Clinton’s presidency was too incremental in its achievements, at least partly because it was too bogged down in partisan squabbling. For the most part, however, Obama has trod pretty gingerly around the topic of Bill Clinton, who is still extremely popular among most Democrats. Until Ohio. Hillary Clinton’s insistence that she privately opposed NAFTA, which may be true but puts her in opposition to one of Bill’s signal accomplishments, has freed Obama to come out against things the Clinton administration did that looked good at the time but don’t seem so hot now. Many Democrats have always been queasy about the Clintons’ fund-raising tactics; Obama has stepped up his attacks on Hillary as too beholden to lobbyists. And he hasn’t just hit Hillary on NAFTA, but made a more general argument: “Every good thing that happened [in Bill’s administration] she says she was a part of. So the notion that you can selectively pick what you take credit for and then run away from what isn’t politically convenient — that doesn’t make sense.” And now, gay rights: Maybe the Clinton-implemented “don’t ask, don’t tell” and Clinton-signed DoMA are the best deals Bill and Hillary thought they could strike ten or fifteen years ago, but they’re thin gruel for Americans looking for equal rights today.
Indeed, by pinning Hillary Clinton to acts of Bill Clinton’s presidency that Democrats look back upon with distaste, Obama is making her look worse than wrong. He’s making her seem passé. —Peter Keating