On high-profile social issues, President Barack Obama did plenty to offend conservatives in his first year, although not always enough to satisfy his base.
Among his first moves in office was to repeal the so-called Mexico City rule, which prohibits U.S. aid from being used to fund abortion or abortion-promotion in foreign countries. His administration announced Jan. 8,2009, it would join with other governments to make "access to reproductive healthcare a basic right," as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech to the International Conference on Population Development.
"What we thought he [Obama] would do is what he’s done," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "Obama has been the most relentlessly pro-abortion President to hold office since Roe v. Wade."
President Bill Clinton also reversed the Mexico City rule, which was in turn reinstated by President George W. Bush. The difference between Clinton and Obama lies in their domestic agenda. While Clinton did little to change the status quo during his two terms, Obama has pushed to increase access to abortion through his sweeping health care legislation.
During the 2008 Democratic primary, Obama did the impossible by outdueling Hillary Clinton on the abortion issue and ultimately winning the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice America. In 2007, Obama told Planned Parenthood that the "first thing I’d do as President" is sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify the Roe v. Wade decision.
That wasn’t the first thing he did as President and, when asked about it, said in April that the "Freedom of Choice Act is not the highest legislative priority." Since then, however, he’s mended fences by including federal funding for abortion in his original health care bill and, when the House removed it, fighting to keep it in the Senate version.
Obama further alienated pro-life voters with his expansion of embryonic stem-cell research. In March, he repealed the Bush administration’s policy limiting scientific access to stem cells to those already available before August 2001. While Obama said he drew the line at cloning embryos, critics say his executive order clears the path for such research.
Perhaps no faction of Obama’s winning election coalition was more openly dissatisfied with his first year than gay-rights groups. Obama repeatedly expressed solidarity with gays during the campaign and specifically promised to end the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. As President, he promised to work to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which holds that marriage is between one man and one woman.
It didn’t take long, however, before Obama was accused of being all talk and no action. Reports from administration sources surfaced saying that the President was unlikely to take up "don’t ask, don’t tell" until 2010 or 2011. While Obama continued to reassure liberals of his support for gay rights, he was criticized for being vague and refusing to commit to a timetable.
In June, Obama signed an executive order extending benefits to the domestic partners of federal workers. But the gay community went ballistic when the Justice Department filed a brief in a same-sex marriage lawsuit upholding the Defense of Marriage Act. Administration officials said they were only doing their jobs by defending a law on the books, but the move resulted in threats by gay fundraisers to withhold campaign donations in the next election.
Thousands of activists marched on Washington in October, demanding that Obama keep his campaign promises to allow gays to serve openly in the military and end discrimination against gays.
Obama responding with a glowing speech at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual dinner, telling the crowd of 3,000 that "when you look back on these years, you will see a time in which we put a stop to discrimination, whether in the office and on the battlefield."
Again, he didn’t quite say that he would be the one doing the stopping. Still, the speech was enough to appease many disgruntled gay-rights supporters.
"This was a historic night when we felt the full embrace and commitment of the President of the United States," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said in a post-speech statement. "It’s simply unprecedented."
Obama’s next move was to sign landmark legislation expanding the definition of hate-crimes laws to include "sexual orientation," over the objections of conservatives who said the law could be used to discriminate against churches and limit free speech.
Conservatives expect the balancing act on gay rights to continue in 2010, when Obama will need to juggle his campaign promises along with his ambitious domestic agenda and the imperatives of the November congressional election.
"He threw them [gay-rights groups] some bones, but he’s way over-committed," said Peter LaBarbera, president of the conservative Americans for Truth. "They’re saying he’s not delivering on his agenda, and the gays are one group you can’t really put off."