Advancing the cause of civil rights

The Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen devotes his column today to praising New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) achievement on marriage equality. There’s no doubt the governor deserves the praise, and I’m delighted to see him receive great accolades.

But Cohen goes a step further, using praise for Cuomo to condemn President Obama.

It has been forever since a single politician did so much to advance what is, after all, a civil rights cause. Certainly, Barack Obama has never done so. Aside from his own presidency — no small matter, I grant you — he has been Mr. On-The-Other-Hand, a man so contained he is his own political sump hole, into which hot issues just disappear.

We talked yesterday about the flaws in the comparison between Cuomo and the president, so let’s put that aside.

When it comes to same-sex marriage, obviously the president is not yet where he needs to be. Obama’s position is “evolving,” and I’m extremely confident that he’ll support marriage equality in the not-too-distant future, but if Cohen and others want to criticize him for being too slow to do the right thing, I’ll gladly agree.

But to say the president has “never” advanced civil rights, and has simply allowed hot issues to “disappear,” is both wrong and lazy.

Cohen wouldn’t even have to look very hard to get the facts — the White House has a page on its website, which Cohen should have taken a few seconds to look at, devoted to the administration’s achievements on civil rights, and after two-and-a-half years in office, there are some important breakthroughs:

* The President signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, restoring basic protections against pay discrimination for women and other workers.

* President Obama pushed for the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in his first State of the Union address, and followed through to sign the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 into law.

* President Obama signed a memorandum expanding federal benefits for the same-sex partners of Foreign Service and executive branch government employees.

* The President signed into law the FY2010 National Defense Authorization Act which included the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

* The President issued a Presidential Memorandum directing the HHS Secretary to ensure that those hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid funds will give gay and lesbian patients and their families the compassion, dignity and respect they deserve in difficult times, as well as widows and widowers with no children, members of religious orders, and others whom otherwise may not have been able to receive visits from good friends and loved ones who are not immediate relatives, or select them to make decisions on their behalf in case of incapacitation.

* The President signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences and eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.

* Signed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 providing funding and statutory authorities for the settlement agreements reached in the Cobell lawsuit, brought by Native Americans; the Pigford II lawsuit, brought by African American farmers; and four separate water rights suits, brought by Native American tribes.

This is not to say the work is complete, and one can hope Obama does even more, especially on marriage. But after two-and-a-half years in office, this is the start of a record the president can be proud of.

Richard Cohen makes it sound as if Obama has ignored civil rights altogether. That’s absurd.