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Jun. 17 2009 - 11:13 am | 42 views | 2 recommendations | 15 comments

Being Barack means never having to say you’re sorry

Barack Obama and Michelle Obama

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Yesterday, I wrote about apologies, and why we do or don’t accept them. The context there was the Sarah Palin / David Letterman clusterf–k, which seems to be over now (save for Dave’s getting a week’s worth of bits out of it).

But, this morning, it’s got me thinking about apologies in the public sphere in general. And why our behavior with regard to public figures that disappoint us is so robotically predictable.

Take President Obama’s announcement that he’ll direct the federal government to start providing same-sex partner benefits to the federal workforce. While not an apology, per se, it’s essentially a conciliatory gesture for a series of actions he’s taken to — not to put too fine a point on it — screw the gay community:

* First, he stood on the sidelines as the African American community in California pushed Proposition 8 over the top, stripping gay couples and families in that state of their civil rights.

* Second, he abandoned his pledge to reverse don’t-ask-don’t-tell in the military.

* Third, he filed an extremely damaging brief in federal court supporting the Defense of Marriage Act, invoking tropes about incest marriage and arguing that DOMA is good for the federal budget (it keeps all those pesky gay partners from collecting Social Security).

Now, he wants the gay community and supporters of gay rights in general to take this as an apology and as sufficient recompense for the previous (and ongoing) screwing of gays in other areas. And, you know what, they (we) will pretty much take it. Just like with Bill Clinton, who did even more to screw gay people (and interns, yes, got that out of my system).

Sure, there will be some angry blog posts written. Sure, some of Obama’s gay supporters will try to work up some anger. But, at the end of the day, for most of them, their hearts won’t be in it.


Well, it goes back to what I wrote yesterday about why we accept apologies from some people and don’t accept them from others. If we generally like someone — and the vast majority of gay people like Obama and voted for him — we’re far more likely to accept an apology from them. And, we’re more likely to believe that their intent was good, and thus we’re even more likely to forgive them.

[By the same token, if you didn't like President Bush, you were certainly never going to forgive him for supporting the Federal Marriage Amendment (even though Bush only fake-supported it to appease his base and then made sure it never moved forward in Congress — arguably making him better on gay rights than Clinton).]

Another factor at work is the “false consensus bias.” It’s a shame the things Obama has had to do out of political necessity, you tell yourself, but I know deep down he cares about gay rights and is just “playing a long game” — he’ll do what he can when he can. Deep down, he’s on the same page as me. Of course, this is bull. Experiments have shown that we’re all terrible intuitive psychologists and extremely prone to projecting our views onto others (that is, in the absence of evidence, we assume people think what we do).

Obama, in fact, has really been the master of false consensus bias. Does he support charter schools? Well, I support charter schools, and he’s given me enough material to pretend he agrees with me. At the same time, a teachers union official somewhere out there believes he really plans to strangle charter schools in their crib. Does he support affirmative action? Gun rights? Gun control? Socialism? Market capitalism? On dozens of issues, millions of Americans have attributed their own views to President Obama. Now that’s how you get elected.

Add in a dash of cognitive dissonance — I voted for Obama, I support gay rights, Obama must support gay rights — and you’ve got the perfect storm.

Will Obama be able to placate the gay community? Being Barack means never having to say you’re sorry.


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  1. collapse expand

    “Will Obama be able to placate the gay community?”

    Not with what the president will be announcing later today he won’t. And hey I like the man, I like the man a lot, but this is definitely too little, too late. Will I forgive him when he keeps his campaign promises and does the right thing? You betcha!

  2. collapse expand

    I think that Obama was very careful during his campaign to set it up to where he would not ever really have to apologize for anything. How many actual campaign “promises” did he actually make? Not too many if I recall correctly. Here is my take: Big O is full of it, always has been, always will be. Do I care about gay marriage?Yes. Does Obama? Probably not, no. Is Obama willing to do something that 30-40% of the populace will REALLY f@#king freak out about. Not a chance. Maybe in 2015, but if I was gay and wanting full federal benefits and recognition, I would not be holding my breath right now. In fact, I might be throwing my support Megan Mccain’s direction.J/K :)

  3. collapse expand

    I think your analysis is right, Ryan. But I also think it has to do with the problem the left in general has when Dems disappoint – where else are we going to go? We have to suck it up, and maybe part of that is lying to ourselves, as you point out.

    • collapse expand

      No Joe, we don’t have to suck it, we’re going to get pissy and angry and withhold finical support when it’s appropriate to do so. I for one am very glad to see that some big donors have withdrawn their support from next week’s DNC fund raiser. Barack Obama promised us something better, he didn’t promise to be the lesser of two evils. We intend to hold him to his promises. There is no justification for expecting people to sit calmly by and suck it up while they are being denied their basic civil rights.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    How long are we going to suck it up, Joseph. When will we get to a point when we realize that the Democratic Party does not really represent our views?( Im making an assumption that we have similar views) At what point do we start throwing support behind a new or existing third party? I think that time has been here for awhile now. Yes, it will look silly and pointless at first, but most liberals are quite young. Im 29 now, and I truly believe that with alot of hard work and unity, we could see a truly liberal third party candidate elected WELL within my lifetime.

  5. collapse expand


    As Obama himself said, a long time ago, he is basically a blank screen upon which other people project their desires. He is a master of the soft edges, of seeming to say something when he has committed himself to nothing. But, now that he is actually in power, and actually doing things, we can compare his words to his actions. Actions, unlike words, are not ambiguous. What is becoming more and more clear is that Obama is quite far to the left on some issues, and not so much on other issues. He is obviously willing to support a larger increase in the size of the federal government than any President since Lyndon Johnson. If your definition of Left is Big Government, then Obama is Left. But, on gay rights, it is more and more obvious than Obama just does not give a damm. It is clear that Obama has zero personal commitment to the issue. He does what is politically useful to him. And, as you say, lets face it, 98.5% of gays support him. Why should he give anything to a group, whose votes he already has? Anything significant he does for gays will risk offending other people, whose votes Obama is not sure that he has. So, that is an easy calculation for Obama. Talk nice to gays, in glittering generalities, but give them as close to nothing as he can get away with.

  6. collapse expand


    As far as advancing the same rights he enjoys to the gay community, President Obama is a miserable failure. All he has to do is piss off a couple more groups…like, say…Hispanics and the younger voter and he will wind up a one-term President. The Republican Party won’t have it together yet to pose a threat.

    I know the chances of someone electable in the Democratic Party running against an Incumbent are slim at first glance. But, there are many things he may not deliver on, fall well short of, or he could outright fail such as the economy, health care, getting out of Iraq, higher education etc. The honeymoon with the gay community may well be over. I know it is an absurd thought, but what if you were African American and could only serve in the military under the same don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy as gays under President Obama? How would that go over? The comment is not meant to be inflammatory, but to show how perversely ridiculous the policy is to begin with.

    In fact, as far as the Defense of Marriage Act. Define marriage as a union between one white man and one white woman. Then give African Americans what he is willing to give to gays in the Federal Government. I’ll bet then and only then will President Obama understand what he is doing. He sure talked a lot about Civil Rights during his campaign and courted the gay community. What does that make him? A hypocrite as he enjoys his basic Civil Rights? Or, just a damn liar?

    I don’t think the gay community is looking for an apology. They are looking for action from a President that follows through with his promises. I think if he doesn’t make good on a few things to the gay community, he will lose their support.

    I voted for him and I like him, but as far as being President, it’s starting to stink. I like the neuroscience you have injected into this. I find it fascinating and a good warning for the gay community to watch out for. Good reasons to accept an apology from him, false consensus bias and cognitive dissonance…OH MY! (Cognitive dissonance being my favorite.)


  7. collapse expand

    First time on site, so forgive. I’m a middle-aged straight guy with a couple of questions: Didn’t Mr. Obama say he didn’t support gay marriage? Did you not believe him? And, I think the answer to this question is something about equality, but given that gay marriage is an issue that is so polarizing today, would not going after the LEGAL RIGHTS be a good step to where you want to get to? I believe that a majority of Americans, including many who are against gay marriage, would not have a problem with the granting of legal rights for civil unions. I’m not trying to insult anyone here, just asking a question. I believe this issue will always be devisive (see Roe v. Wade), so is there a compromise that both the gay and straight communities could live in harmony with? Just asking…

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

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