President Obama's fundraiser today at the Paramount was his first public appearance since he announced his personal support for marriage equality in an interview with ABC News yesterday, and a lot of people came to the speech with a lot of expectations. Would President Obama's speech today reflect yesterday's news? Would he campaign on gay marriage as an issue? Expectations were high: The streets surrounding the Paramount resembled a mini-Pride parade, with Seattleites in rainbow clothes pushed up against barricades holding signs expressing their gratitude ("THANKS FOR EVOLVING") for his statement of support. A few people held up a large, elaborate banner depicting President Obama on one side and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the other as standard-bearers of civil rights. Would he restate his support? Would he encourage Washington voters to stand up for marriage equality in the fall?
These sorts of press events are huge, intricately detailed affairs. Everything is tightly controlled, from the timing of SPD's cordoning off the streets surrounding the Paramount through the Secret Service security details (the TSA demonstrates the gentle, loving touch of an elderly aunt compared to the frisking, bomb-sniffing-doggery, and thorough bag-searching that the Secret Service subject the press to before every event). And the Obama campaign's messaging is at that high level of discipline, too: Those expecting a fiery defense of marriage equality were going to come away from the fundraiser disappointed.
What President Obama offered was basically his standard stump-speech. This doesn't mean he ignored LGBT issues—when he listed his accomplishments, DADT repeal was high on the list; he said that no American, "black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled" should be discriminated against; and he did state that nobody should be denied rights because of who they love. (That mention of the freedom to love came early in the speech, and it got a raucous round of applause.) But marriage equality was just one of a series of issues he set out to contrast himself with Mitt Romney, who he referred to frequently by name. Romney, he said, "is a patriotic American," and he congratulated him for the "success he's had as the head of a large financial firm," which earned derisive laughter from the crowd.
Obama started by talking about income inequality (the fact that he was speaking to a $1000-a-plate fundraiser didn't seem to dampen the audience's ardor for Occupy-friendly issues). He mocked the Republican concept that hard work pays off, saying "I'm just starting to pay a little more attention to their campaign. It's just the same old stuff." "You've been working harder than ever," he told the audience, and "harder work isn't leading to higher incomes." He defended taxpayer-funded endeavors: "We the people invested in creating the internet that allowed Microsoft, Google, and Facebook to thrive," and every American business benefits from our roads and bridges, though he admitted that "not every regulation is smart, and not every tax dollar is spent wisely."
From there, Obama launched into a segment of the speech centered around his campaign's "Forward" theme. "America doesn't need to refight the battles we've already fought...we're not going back, we're going forward. We don't need another political fight about ending a woman's right to choose."
"This election's going to be closer than the last," he warned. "A lot of people are still hurting," and the Republicans will go relentlessly negative in their ads ("more negative ads, more cynicism, more just plain nastiness") because "they're not offering a new set of ideas. There's nothing they're offering where you say, 'Man, I didn't think of that. That's fresh, that's new.'" But the question, he said, isn't about whether we're better off than we were four years ago, and "it's not just about how we're doing today. It's about how we're doing tomorrow," thanks to investments in scientific research and technology, in education, and infrastructure. President Obama ended by vigorously calling back to his 2008 campaign: "It's still about hope. It's still about change," he said, and we have to "finish what we started...I believe in you," he told the audience, and he hoped they still believed in him.
So. Was it a successful speech? Yes. But it's not hard to woo a room full of people who are already on your side. It did what a stump speech was supposed to do: Covers accomplishments, makes promises, frames the opposition in an unflattering light. As a piece of writing, I'm a little frustrated by the callbacks to the 2008 campaign that conclude the passage of the speech that's all about moving forward. There's not as much humor in the speech as there has been in Obama speeches in the past, and that causes the audience to look for humor in some awkward places, such as the laughter at Romney's success, which I could see Republican bloggers having a party over. But stump speeches evolve as they go, and this is still a very new speech. It's more issues-based than Romney's speech, and it's obviously delivered with a lot more excitement and credibility. It's a good start, but it's got a little way to go. (And he still lacks a bit of personal warmth: The president was introduced by Suzanne Black, a Seattleite who has been battling stage IV ovarian cancer since 2005. Black, a high school biology teacher, praised "the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, whatever you want to call it" for saving her life by eliminating the lifetime limits that some insurance companies were putting on patients. Black had the audience's heart from the very beginning; at the start of her speech her voice caught on a sob and everyone held their breath as they rooted for her. As intellectually engaged and politically fired-up as they were by President Obama, the audience emotionally belonged to Black.)
But back to that original question, about whether President Obama would make another personal defense of marriage equality today: Outside the Paramount, among the celebrants, there was a family holding a large rainbow flag aloft. Holly Teige and her partner, Nef Anton (who together started the Sky Valley GLBTQ Alliance) brought four of their six children from their Snohomish County home to the Paramount because they wanted to thank the president for yesterday's support. Does she feel cheated that he didn't make a bigger issue about marriage equality in the speech? "Not at all," Teige said. She thinks it wouldn't be "a smart political choice" for him to "buttress" marriage equality into a matter of "political rhetoric." Not running on marriage equality, she said, is "a wise decision,"and it doesn't take away from the importance of yesterday's announcement.
How do Teige and Anton plan on fighting for marriage equality in Washington this fall? "Just by personally talking to people" about their large, happy family makes a huge difference, Anton said. That kind of activism is most important to her. "I know I have my voice," she said.