Obama and Social Issues

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 23 2009 6:11 PM

Obama and Social Issues

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Hey, President Obama! I have a family-values agenda for you.

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Well, it isn't really mine. It's the ideas of a lot of other people who have worked on abortion, birth control, sex education, marriage, and gay rights a lot longer than I have. These ideas are good for the country, and they suit you. All I've done is wrap them up in a package. It's in Sunday's New York Times . Take it.

Basically, it's a framework for making tangible progress on moral issues. As you know, these issues tend to be incendiary, toxic, and impervious to compromise. You don't need them. But they need you. They need your pragmatism. The philosophy you sketched in your inaugural address—an era of responsibility guided by old moral truths—works just as well for social issues as it does for economics.

That's the starting point. Just be yourself: old-fashioned about values but practical about solutions. Stick to those two principles, and good ideas will fall into place, forming a moral agenda that's right for our times.

None of these ideas are mine. On birth control and sex education, they come from places such as the Hewlett Foundation , the Brookings Institution , and the National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy . On abortion reduction, you can find them at Third Way and Democrats for Life , along with commendable initiatives from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America . On gay marriage, the thinkers to read are Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch .

I can't promise that all of these ideas will work out politically. If you lead on abortion reduction through contraception, most Catholics and even most Americans who think of themselves as pro-life will go with you. But the Vatican, the bishops, and the hierarchies of the major pro-life groups will fight you tooth and nail. If you lead on gay marriage, you'll be excoriated. Politically, Rauch's proposal to offer marriage by another name makes more sense. I'm just drawing a rough map of the way forward. How we get there is up to you.

There's my pitch. I hope it's helpful.