Getting Ahead of Congress

Gays in the military. Reproductive rights at home and abroad. Equality in public education. If this list of progressive policy priorities makes you cringe, you're not the only one. No sooner had the Democratic candidate flipped swing state after swing state -- in an election Republicans tried to win on culture -- than a chorus rose up urging Barack Obama to proceed with extreme caution on social issues. Randi Weingarten, the nation's highest-profile teachers' union executive, told The Wall Street Journal she didn't expect Obama to quickly address failing schools. "We have to focus on the economy first," she said. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who is gay, told the Washington Blade that Obama should put off repealing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy toward gays in the military until "Iraq is over." Matt Yglesias, an online columnist for the Prospect and a blogger for the Center for American Progress, wrote that it would be unwise to quickly advance pro-choice and gay-rights legislation: "When thinking about your priorities, it's important to front-load with the right things."

Yes, the economy and Iraq must be President Obama's first priorities. But portraying social issues as the "wrong things" -- as oppositional to economic and security issues -- is unhelpful and almost guarantees a stalemate on key civil-rights goals. Misgivings from conservative Republicans and skittish Democrats should not drive Obama's agenda. Rather, the president must begin reaching out to Congress to build support on key social issues right away. If he doesn't lay the groundwork now, future opportunities will be lost.

Consider Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which proved a political quagmire for Bill Clinton early in his first term. In 1993, just 44 percent of Americans believed gays should serve in the military. Today, an encouraging three-quarters of the public believes gay people should serve openly. Repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell will still be controversial. But with significant public support for a repeal, the time is ripe for the administration to signal that it takes the issue seriously.

The same calculus applies to reproductive rights. George W. Bush ensured that even his most progressive foreign-policy achievement, a global HIV/AIDS prevention program, was saddled with the "global gag rule," which prevents U.S. foreign aid from funding family planning, including condom distribution. Reinstituting the gag rule, first imposed by Ronald Reagan, was one of Bush's earliest acts in office. Obama shouldn't be shy about moving just as quickly to overturn it.

On the domestic front, Obama is likely to appoint judges who support Roe v. Wade. But with 87 percent of U.S. counties without an abortion provider and growing numbers of pharmacists refusing to dispense birth control, many women must jump through financial, legal, and logistical hoops to access reproductive health care. The only way to reverse this situation is through federal action. One option is the Freedom of Choice Act, which would legislatively enshrine Roe's principle that states cannot restrict women's access to abortion prior to fetal viability. Post-Roe Supreme Court rulings gave states wiggle room to enact earlier restrictions if they contained exceptions for women's health; Congress could take that latitude away and once again empower patients and doctors. But congressional Democrats will have little motivation to address this issue and negotiate with Republicans to prevent a filibuster unless the administration is willing to take a leadership role on choice.

On education, Obama's approach must be more complex, since the Democratic caucus is split between defenders of the teachers' unions and those who believe reform should include free-market policies generally opposed by the unions, such as merit pay and ending tenure. But Obama could easily put off dealing with some of the more contentious, union-related education issues while including some elements of education reform in his economic stimulus package. One example? He could inject billions of federal dollars into constructing new school buildings, particularly in inner cities and rural areas. This would create jobs and prove Obama's commitment to disadvantaged students.

Of course, this does not mean Obama should plunge forward on difficult issues without acknowledging sensitivities. But a president with such committed grass-roots support ought to be held to a high standard of leadership on civil-rights issues. The extremism of much of the Republican congressional caucus is no excuse for Obama to put off making progress. If the administration doesn't take serious steps toward aggressive social change early on, Congress won't prepare itself to go along for the ride. The poor, women, and minorities will be the ones left behind.

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