Barack Obama has become nothing if not a man of moral imperatives lately, with guns, gays and immigration topping his list of social issues.
The crescendo of his State of the Union speech elevated his newfound cause of gun control reforms as a crisis of conscience for the Congress. “They deserve a vote,” he implored repeatedly, ticking off a list of shooting victims as he urged lawmakers to move on his package of gun safety proposals.
But the president extended an olive branch to conservatives on immigration in the speech. He played up the need for strong border security, highlighting the fact that illegal crossings are at “their lowest levels in 40 years.” He also advocated that undocumented immigrants be obligated to meet certain requirements like paying back-taxes and learning English before being eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship — stipulations that have been shown to increase conservative support for what has become a progressive virtue in immigration reform, a pathway to citizenship.
And after making equality for LGBT Americans fundamental to the nation’s journey in his inaugural address, Obama only translated that vision to the realm of equal treatment and benefits for all military service members – “gay and straight” – on Tuesday night.
But the president’s relatively safe handling of immigration and LGBT issues during the State of the Union are more likely a sign of their current positioning and progress than a flagging interest in realizing those goals.
Gun reform is still regarded by many in Washington as a near impossibility and, arguably, needs the biggest boost of the three social issues following nearly a dozen years of total neglect from Democrats. After referring to the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings as “the worst day of my presidency,” President Obama seeks to help launch gun control into that mystical transition on Capitol Hill from political impossibility to political reality.
Immigration reform and LGBT equality – both regarded as lightning rods just a handful of years ago – now carry an air of inevitability, though are still far from a done deal.
As recently as the fall of 2007, Rahm Emanuel himself proclaimed that immigration had “emerged as the third rail of American politics … And anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people.” Only a year later, he would be tapped as President-elect Obama’s chief of staff and the immigration bill that candidate Obama had promised on the campaign trail would die a rather untimely death in the first year of his presidency.
But DREAM activists — a group of brave young undocumented immigrants brought to America as children — refused to relent. Rather than letting their cause die on Capitol Hill along with the immigration bill, they made their case aggressively in the court of public opinion through high-profile protests and rallies and sit-ins across the country.
Before the end of 2010, they had forced two Senate votes (albeit unsuccessful) on the DREAM Act — legislation that would provide them a path to citizenship. It was more than the legislative accomplishments of most progressive constituencies, including powerful lobbies like labor. In 2012, DREAMers scored again, convincing the Obama administration to employ its executive authority to halt deportations of undocumented youth and offer them temporary work permits.
In fact, the DREAMers succeeded in making their plight so morally imperative, the administration’s self-described “Mom in Chief,” Michelle Obama, also adopted their cause in 2012 — no doubt, aware of its voter appeal. During her nationwide campaign swing, the first lady highlighted her husband’s push to give DREAMers a chance no less than 46 times.
“He is fighting for responsible young people who came to this country as children, through no fault of their own, and were raised as Americans -- know no other country -- because he believes that these young people also deserve a chance to go to college, to contribute to our economy, to serve the country they know and they love,” she told a crowd in Greensboro, N.C., last August.
As DREAMers provided a sympathetic lens through which many Americans began to see the greater immigration debate, the Hispanic constituency translated a moral imperative into a new political reality for Capitol Hill on Nov. 6, 2012. Latino voters — the ever-growing juggernaut of a voting bloc — cast their ballots for President Obama over challenger Mitt Romney by a gaping 71 to 27 points, and Republicans entered a new world. They would simply have to find ways to appeal to a minority they had demonized for more than a decade or risk running over what some have aptly labeled “a demographic cliff.”
The other political reality the Republicans awoke to is the fact that they lost the under-30 demographic by 24 points, and this group is far more liberal on social issues: 64 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases and fully 66 percent support legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
Of course in 2008, after a parade of a couple of dozen states had banned same-sex marriage, the topic was still considered a political taboo even by many LGBT activists. Yet other gay issues fared much better with the public. A solid majority of Americans (65-80 percent), for instance, consistently voiced support for allowing lesbians and gays to serve openly in the military throughout Obama’s first two years. Still, Congress didn’t squeak out repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” until just four days before the close of the 2010 congressional session.
Similar to the DREAMers, LGBT activists spent nearly two years prodding Congress and President Obama to act through direct actions that often weren’t popular with Democrats. But only a year and a half after repeal, the nation would tune into ABC News on May 9, 2012, to watch President Obama declare the love of same-sex couples worthy of the word “marriage.” What was once considered a taboo had become an electoral necessity in just four years’ time.
Gun control could similarly transition from political impossibility to political reality with activists pushing from the bottom and President Obama pushing from the top. Universal background checks, which about nine in 10 Americans support, might serve as a gateway to other safety measures in the same way repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” led to other LGBT advances. And much like DREAMers helped shine a softer light on the plight of undocumented immigrants, the Newtown tragedy has recast the gun debate around the vulnerability of the nation’s most innocent and precious resource – children.
Once third-rail issues transform into moral imperatives, impossibilities sometimes surrender to new realities.