By MAUREEN DOWD
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
HE was born this way.
Not bisexual. Not even bipartisan. Just binary.
Our president likes to be on both sides at once.
In Afghanistan, he wants to go but he wants to stay. He’s surging and withdrawing simultaneously. He’s leaving fewer troops than are needed for a counterinsurgency strategy and more troops than are needed for a counterterrorism strategy — and he seems to want both strategies at the same time. Our work is done but we have to still be there. Our work isn’t done but we can go.
On Libya, President Obama wants to lead from behind. He’s engaging in hostilities against Qaddafi while telling Congress he’s not engaging in hostilities against Qaddafi.
On the budget, he wants to cut spending and increase spending. On the environment, he wants to increase energy production but is reluctant to drill. On health care, he wants to get everybody covered but will not press for a universal system. On Wall Street, he assails fat cats, but at cocktail parties, he wants to collect some of their fat for his campaign.
On politics, he likes to be friends with the other side but bash ’em at the same time. For others, bipartisanship means transcending their own prior political identities. For President Obama, it means that he participates in all political identities. He does not seem deeply affiliated with any side except his own.
He was elected on the idea of bold change, but now — except for the capture of Osama and his drone campaign in Pakistan and Yemen — he plays it safe. He shirks politics as usual but gets all twisted up in politics.
The man who was able to beat the Clintons in 2008 because the country wanted a break from Clintonian euphemism and casuistry is now breaking creative new ground in euphemism and casuistry.
Obama is “evolving” on the issue of gay marriage, which, as any girl will tell you, is the first sign of a commitment-phobe.
Maybe, given all his economic and war woes as he heads into 2012, Obama fears the disapproval of the homophobic elements within his own party. But he has tried to explain his reluctance on gay marriage as an expression of his Christianity, even though he rarely goes to church and is the picture of a secular humanist.
While picking up more than three-quarters of a million dollars from 600 guests at a gay and lesbian fund-raising gala in Manhattan on Thursday night, the president declared, “I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country,” even as he held to his position that the issue should be left to the states to decide.
He’s not as bad as New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who gave another grumpy interview on Thursday, this time to The National Catholic Register, asserting: “You think it’s going to stop with this? You think now bigamists are going to want their rights to marry? You think somebody that wants to marry his sister is going to now say, ‘I have a right’? I mean, it’s the same principle, isn’t it?”
The archbishop concluded: “Next thing you know, they’re going to say there’s four outs to every inning of baseball. This is crazy.” (He’s beginning to sound like Justice Scalia.)
Still, Obama’s reluctance to come out for gay marriage seems hugely and willfully inconsistent with what we know about his progressive worldview. And it is odd that the first black president is letting Andrew Cuomo, who pushed through a gay-marriage bill in Albany on Friday night, go down in history as the leader on the front lines of the civil rights issue of our time.
But for the president, “the fierce urgency of now” applies only to getting checks from the gay community, not getting up to speed with all the Americans who think it’s time for gay marriage.
As with “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Obama is not leading the public, he’s following. And worse, the young, hip black president who was swept in on a gust of change, audacity and hope is lagging behind a couple of old, white conservatives — Dick Cheney and Ted Olson.
As a community organizer, Obama developed impressive empathetic gifts. But now he is misusing them. It’s not enough to understand how everybody in the room thinks. You have to decide which ones in the room are right, and stand with them. A leader is not a mediator or an umpire or a convener or a facilitator.
Sometimes, as Chris Christie put it, “the president has got to show up.”
With each equivocation, the man in the Oval Office shields his identity and cloaks who the real Barack Obama is.
He should draw inspiration from the gay community: one thing gays have to do, after all, is declare who they are at all costs.
On some of the most important issues facing this nation, it is time for the president to come out of the closet.