Just five days to go till the inauguration of a new president, and there’s still no consensus on just how much of a break with the past Barack Obama is going to attempt in his first days in office.

It’s not just opponents of torture (a category that we used to think included virtually all of the civilised world) who are worrying about whether Obama will come up to expectations. The LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) community has a similar set of hopes and fears.

Obama antagonised many of his LGBT supporters last month by inviting Rick Warren, a relatively moderate evangelical but strong opponent of gay marriage, to speak at next week’s inauguration. This week, he offered a contrasting signal by also giving a platform to Gene Robinson, the openly gay Anglican bishop, who will give the invocation at the first inaugural event, a concert on Sunday evening.

Also this week came the discovery by a Chicago LGBT news organisation of Obama’s statements from 1996 offering unequivocal support for gay marriage (hat tip: Pandagon). This revelation suggested that, as most people already suspected, his more recent coolness on the issue is the product of political calculation, not conviction.

This raises a philosophical question: would we rather be tricked into electing a president who is really more tolerant than he admits, or elect one who wears his intolerance honestly on his sleeve?

But it also invites a historical comparison. Sixteen years ago, Bill Clinton took office pledging to allow gays to serve in the military — an obvious piece of policy commonsense that should have been implemented quickly and cleanly.

Instead, Clinton seemed to be taken by surprise by a well-organised conservative hate campaign against the move. Wrong-footed, he hesitated, then compromised with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that is still in force. It was widely seen as a major blow to his credibility.

As I said yesterday, the obstacles to good policy are more often political than practical. Obama will not push for a national gay marriage statute, not because he thinks it would be bad policy but because it would cost him far too much political capital.

But if he fails to quickly follow through on moves like the abolition of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, his presidency could suffer a setback of Clintonesque proportions.

Peter Fray

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