The focus of the afternoon remarks was the entirety of the National
Defense Authorization Act, so much of his comments related to defense
spending and our military priorities. Later, however, the White House,
in partnership with outside foundation support, held an evening
reception for proponents of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which
included additional comments from the President.
At the evening remarks, Obama told of comments made by President Lyndon
B. Johnson upon the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Johnson
said then that with the passage of the legislation, "the bells of
freedom ring out a little louder." Today, Obama said that "bell rings
even louder now," but noted that the work of securing freedom for all
Americans "certainly does not end today."
The work is not done, but the question with which we are left today is what will be the legacy of today's signing.
Will the legacy be that with its passage, the White House and Congress
passed a watershed moment in LGBT equality to be followed in short
order by action on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act; the
elimination of Don't Ask, Don't Tell from our Armed Forces; and
significant movement toward the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act?
As Elizabeth Birch, the former head of the Human Rights Campaign, said
at the evening reception, "This was the moment that was required in
order to have new laws follow."
Or, will this be, like so often in legislative struggles, the single
trinket doled out to a loyal constituency group until the next time the
group demands action?
Expressing gratefulness for today's signing, Judy Shepard, attending
the signing ceremony, said that today meant "everything" to her and her
family. She said in a statement, though, that the law was only the
first step and that "each of us can and must do much more to ensure
true equality for all Americans." Vicki Kennedy, who also attended,
said of her late husband, the Senator Edward Kennedy, "I think he's
Rep. Baldwin said at the signing ceremony today, "Our efforts will not
cease . . . in passing other very important civil rights legislation."
She added, referring to ENDA and the federal employee domestic partner
benefits bill she is spearheading: "I hope on both bills that we'll see
floor action before the year is out," though she noted that health care
reform could hold that up." Hilary Shelton, the NAACP's Washington,
D.C. bureau director, was likewise optimistic, saying that today's
signing "emboldens" civil rights activists.
When the President says that such actions as the signing of today's
legislation "is about who we are as a people," it is clear that he is
on the side of equality advocates in this struggle. What he did not do,
but could have, was to explain in terms of the twisted path taken by
the hate crimes legislation exactly how he views the legislative
process and how he and his Administration intend to mirror this
legislative success in the case of ENDA and other equality priorities.