Tonight President Obama will appear before the legislative version of the Hatfields and McCoys, otherwise known as Congress, to deliver his next-to-last State of the Union address. With the clock ticking on his presidency, Obama has little time to accomplish any outstanding goals, and a year from now, both Republicans and Democrats will be so focused on the 2016 presidential election, that the time is even shorter than the calendar suggests.
So if Obama is going to do anything for the LGBT community, now’s the time to do it. Given what he has accomplished, though, it’s not a very long list. From the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to the executive order forbidding workplace discrimination, Obama has radically changed the landscape in which we live. Still, there’s plenty of room for more progress. Here are a five things that the President should make priorities in his remaining time in office.
Cement the permanence of marriage equality. True, the justices on Supreme Court will be the one’s deciding if there is a constitutional right to marriage equality. But as a constitutional law professor, Obama needs to keep making his opinion clear. More to the point, he needs to be explicit that there is no going back. All the rights that the federal government has conferred on married couples need to survive his presidency. No matter what the Supreme Court decides, Obama has to drive home the fact that marriage equality is here to stay.
Make LGBT rights an issue in international relations. Obama had some harsh words for the homophobia that Vladimir Putin unleashed in Russia. But, as a letter from activists in repressive regimes attests to, there’s plenty more that Obama could be doing about countries like Nigeria and Brunei. He could start with Cuba. Now that we have diplomatic relations with the country, Obama could signal that the U.S. is interested in an independent LGBT movement in Havana.
Elevate transgender issues. Obama could be the first president to mention transgender rights in a State of the Union address. More to the point, he could raise the country’s awareness. He’s already signed an executive order banning workplace discrimination against transgender employees who work for federal contractors. But that was done quietly. Now’s the time to draw attention to the issue and ensure that Obama’s fabled arc of justice includes transgender people.
Work with corporate America to put workplace protections in place. It’s clear right-wing Republicans in Congress will never allow the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to come to the House floor for a vote because it would pass. Obama did a partial end-run around Congress with his executive order. How about going one step further, to the executive suite? Obama could rally CEOs around corporate protections, making it clear that the Fortune 500 consider this a basic of doing business. That would put a lot of pressure on other CEOs. There’s no point in waiting for Congress to act, because it won’t, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other avenues to pursue.
Give one really big speech on LGBT rights. For someone known as President Eloquent, Obama has never really given LGBT rights the rhetorical due he has to other topics. Obama clearly has a vision for LGBT rights in America. While he’s still president, he should use the soap box to tell us what that is. It will set a standard for what America should expect and give other politicians a baseline against which they will be measured. We should be the beneficiary of his oratorical powers just once. A speech isn’t the same as an action, but the words may live on a long time after the fight is over.