Melody Barnes, President Obama’s top domestic policy adviser, said the president and his senior advisers decided early to arrange for “many” high-level White House officials to address LGBT issues rather than appoint a single LGBT liaison to handle those issues.
In what may have been the first briefing for LGBT press by a White House domestic policy chief, Barnes called the divvying up of LGBT-related issues to the senior staff a “maturation” of both the LGBT civil rights movement and the U.S. presidency.
“I can tell you that it was [White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel who urged the president to take action on hospital visitation” for LGBT partners, said Barnes.
She said Emanuel pushed for the president’s decision last month to take executive action to require hospitals that receive federal funds to allow same-sex partner visitation and decision-making rights similar to that of married spouses.
President Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to designate a White House staff member to serve as the administration’s official liaison to the LGBT community, although the staff person had other, non-LGBT related duties. President George W. Bush, who succeeded Clinton, did not designate a White House LGBT liaison.
Barnes fielded questions from reporters and editors from LGBT media outlets during a briefing July 1 held in a conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.
In most instances, she reiterated positions expressed in the past by the president or his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, on issues ranging from efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and an LGBT-inclusive hate crimes bill passed by Congress.
“[W]ithin the last week or so you and many people have had the opportunity to hear the president talk about the issues that he believes are critical, specifically with regard to the LGBT community,” she said. “And we believe that we have, in the last 18 months, the year and a half that we’ve been in the administration, taken more steps and made more progress with regard to the LGBT community than past administrations have.”
Barnes said the president has repeatedly made it clear that he wants Congress to pass several LGBT-related bills, including ENDA, which would ban most private-sector employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; and the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, which would provide full spousal benefits to the same-sex partners of federal workers.
She said the president also remains strongly committed to seeing Congress repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing and providing federal benefits for married same-sex couples; and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which bars gays, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly in the armed forces.
But in response to questions from reporters, Barnes said the president accepts the fact that leaders in Congress — not the White House — would decide when or if those pending bills are taken up this year.
“The queue is full,” she said in reference to statements by House and Senate Democratic leaders that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal measure may be the only one of the bills brought to a vote this year due to a full legislative agenda. “We’re pushing hard.”
On the issue of whether the Obama administration should have defended the Defense of Marriage Act or the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law against pending lawsuits challenging them on constitutional grounds, Barnes said the president and his Department of Justice believe they are obligated to defend existing laws, even if they don’t support them.
“Right now it’s the law of the land,” she said of DOMA. “At the same time, that’s why the president has called for the repeal of DOMA, has been working towards the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and has been very clear about saying ‘I believe that in both instances, these laws are discriminatory.’”
Asked by Pam Spaulding, editor of Pam’s House Blend blog, why the president has yet to grant an interview with one or more LGBT news outlets while giving interviews to media outlets for other constituency groups, Barnes said she didn’t know the answer but would make inquires.
Other LGBT media outlets participating in the briefing included the Advocate, Philadelphia Gay News, Gay City News of New York, Bilerico Project, Metro Weekly and Keen News Service.