President Barack Obama’s historic embrace of gay marriage last week saddened me. For a President of the United States to back into such a monumental announcement reflected weakness not strength, diminishing the man, the message and the office. Even as gay activists and Democrats try spinning Obama’s wobbly stand as heroic, Israel’s newly-energized prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu should not learn leadership lessons from his frenemy. Netanyahu must start leading on key issues rather than skirting them as he has been doing or playing it too cute by half as Obama just did.
This twist in the gay marriage saga began on “Meet the Press,” when Vice President Foot-in-mouth, aka Joe Biden, proclaimed when asked directly: “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”
Biden is lucky he is a Democrat. He is windier, wordier, less disciplined than Dan Quayle but because Biden’s views are more in synch with many reporters – as on this issue – he has largely been spared the ridicule he deserves. Biden opposed the Osama Bin Laden raid, then called it the most “audacious” military operation in “500 years.” He greeted Rep. Gabrielle Gifford, the Congresswoman recovering from being shot in the head, upon her return to Congress by saying, “She’s now a member of the cracked head club like me.” He once was caught on microphone dropping “the f-bomb” after introducing the President in the White House.
This time, even Obama admitted that Biden got “a little over his skis.” Nevertheless, by midweek, on Wednesday May 9, the President followed the Vice President by acknowledging, in an ABC interview that “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue” and “At a certain point, I''ve just concluded that-- for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that-- I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” As befit the interview format and America’s confessional culture, Obama justified the decision personally not ideologically. Hoping the issue could be “worked out at the local level,” he dodged the Constitutional and national policy questions. He spoke instead about “members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together,” about gay “soldiers or airmen or marines or -- sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf,” and about his daughters Malia and Sasha -- “they''ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples” who shouldn’t be “treated differently.”
In a pathological tell, wherein you accuse your opponent of doing precisely what you are doing as you do it, Obama then started attacking Mitt Romney’s inconstancy, which Obama called “one of his Etch-a-Sketch moments.” Obama was echoing a Republican spokesman’s Bidenesque characterization of the adjustments Romney will make while transitioning from the primary campaign to the general election. If the traditional definition of chutzpah is killing your parents then pleading for mercy as an orphan, Obama chutzpah entails calling Romney an Etch-a-Sketch leader while shaking and redrawing his gay marriage stance in his boobish vice president’s tailwind.
Great leaders evolve. They shift their positions, rethink strategies, adjust their tactics, and even, sometimes, reexamine core convictions, as Richard Nixon did with his diplomatic breakthrough to China, and Ariel Sharon with the Gaza disengagement. But my mother taught that if you are going to do it, do it right. John Kennedy’s civil rights stance evolved. The tentative politician who tried dodging the black equality issue in January 1960 became a statesman who confronted it eloquently on June 11, 1963. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” the President proclaimed in what became hailed as his Civil Rights speech. “It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” Obama, instead, bequeathed to American history an unmemorable conversational announcement elicited by a reporter that had all the poetry of a gas bill, while triggering back stories about Biden’s subsequent make-up meeting with Obama, and Democratic election advisers’ fury over Biden’s blabbing.
Learning what not to do from Obama, Bibi Netanyahu should mobilize his expanded, empowered coalition to change Israeli history boldly and clearly. Since 2009, Netanyhau has been part stealth leader, part ward boss. His greatest accomplishments have included quietly blocking undemocratic legislation and tending his weak, fractious coalition. Now, he should stop treading water. Rather than simply maneuvering in the Knesset he should start addressing the nation about tough issues. He should frame the upcoming debate over the Tal Law as a broader opportunity to redraw Israel’s social contract, emphasizing the special rights Haredim and Arabs will enjoy while also emphasizing their communal responsibilities. He should confront the anti-Zionist Rabbinate and carve out more civic space for marriages, births, easy conversions, and divorce. He should not wait for another round of social protests before seeking a new balance that shows the world how to preserve Israel’s impressive prosperity while securing the social safety net without making middle class taxpayers feel like freiers (suckers). And he should continue showing that with both the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear issue, Israel will determine its own destiny, neither held hostage to enemies’ whims nor handcuffed by well-meaning and not so well-meaning Westerners.
When Kennedy became president, his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower warned that only the difficult decisions ended up in the Oval Office. Leading entails choosing between competing goods – or bads. In the US and Israel, sister democracies, we should give our leaders a break, understanding the complex challenges they face. And they should give us what we crave – clearer, more muscular, more principled statesmanship.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book is “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight Against Zionism as Racism.”