On Wednesday afternoon, at an Oval Office ceremony attended by a dozen legislators and activists, as well as Vice President Biden, President Obama signed a memorandum that extends some benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.
"Today I'm proud to issue a presidential memorandum that paves the way for long-overdue progress in our nation's pursuit of equality. Many of our government's hard-working and dedicated, patriotic public servants have long been denied basic rights that their colleagues enjoy for one simple reason: the people that they love are of the same sex," Obama said at the signing. "Hundreds of Fortune 500 companies already offer such benefits, not just because it's the right thing to do but because they recognize that such benefits help them compete for and retain the best talent. We need top talent serving their country more than ever right now."
Though the administration publicly denies it, the action -- not to mention the signing ceremony -- seems to have come in response to the criticism it's gotten from the LGBT community recently. Activists are upset with the president for, among other things, his delay in fulfilling a campaign promise to overturn the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and with the Justice Department's legal defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. (Elsewhere on Salon today, Americablog's John Aravosis has an article explaining his frustration with the administration that's worth a read.)
The administration certainly seemed to be doing some damage control before the signing ceremony. After news of the move broke Wednesday, there was quite a bit of skepticism about it and what actual effect it would have. The White House took pains to respond comprehensively, sending out a fact sheet about the new policy and conducting a conference call with reporters and bloggers to explain its import. That's more than it normally does, and it seemed to reflect the amount of attention Obama was getting on this.
But for all that, the policy really doesn't go all that far. It does mean that most federal workers -- non-civilian employees of the Department of Defense are not included -- will now be able to take sick leave if they need to care for their partner or their partner's children, and it will help with some visitation rights and provide long-term care insurance coverage. But the biggest benefits, like healthcare and retirement, are not included; they're prohibited under DOMA. And some gay federal employees already had these benefits, depending on their supervisor's policy.
In his statement, Obama called the memorandum "a historic step towards the changes we seek," but admitted, "I think we all have to acknowledge that this is only one step." He also restated his desire to repeal DOMA and concluded, "We've got more work to do to ensure that government treats all its citizens equally, to fight injustice and intolerance in all its forms, to bring about a more perfect union. I'm committed to these efforts, and I pledge to work tirelessly on behalf of these issues."
So far, though, there are a lot of LGBT activists and politicians who haven't seen much evidence of that commitment, and are unhappy about it -- it's unlikely Wednesday's ceremony will do much to change that.
The memorandum itself can be downloaded in PDF form here.