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Social policy of the Barack Obama administration

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

First official presidential portrait of Barack Obama, wearing a black suit with a blue tie and American flag lapel pin, indoors with the American flag and the flag of the President draped in the background
Obama's first term presidential portrait (2009)

The Almanac of American Politics (2008) rated Barack Obama's overall social policies in 2006 as more conservative than 21% of the Senate, and more liberal than 77% of the Senate (18% and 77%, respectively, in 2005).[1]

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  • ✪ Genetics and Ethics in the Obama Administration | Alondra Nelson || Radcliffe Institute
  • ✪ Election Year: The Obama Presidency and the 2012 Campaign
  • ✪ 2010 Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy The Obama Administration
  • ✪ Obama, Race, and Politics: Public Voices 10 | The New School
  • ✪ Portrait of a Presidency: Pete Souza's Photography of the Obama Years


[MUSIC PLAYING] - Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study here, at Harvard. Welcome to the annual Kim and Judy Davis Dean's Lecture in the Social Sciences. This year, featuring Dr. Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council and professor of sociology at Columbia University. I'm delighted to have Alondra here with us today, and thrilled that all of us have the opportunity to hear from her. Let me extend a special welcome to Kim Davis and members of the Radcliffe Institute Leadership Society, as well as our generous annual donors, who make the work of the Institute possible. Thank you for your support Alondra Nelson is an acclaimed scholar and distinguished leader both in academia and in the world of policy. She's also a respected public intellectual, who frequently devotes her intellectual firepower to advancing racial and social justice. Alondra pushes her fellow social scientists to be similarly engaged with the world, encouraging researchers, to quote Alondra, "ask the hard questions about the public good. Reach new audiences, and communicate effectively and emphatically." Alondra's own scholarly work in women and gender studies, as well as African-American studies, sits at the intersection of science, technology, medicine, and inequality. She investigates how science shapes the world we inhabit, exploring questions of identity, collective action, and our engagement with scientific conceptualizations of race, ethnicity, gender, and much more. Alondra's latest book, The Social Life of DNA, Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, results from a decade plus of ethnographic research on direct to consumer genetic ancestry testing. Beginning in the early 2000s, long before ancestry tests became mainstream, let alone advertised as holiday gifts, Alondra set out to learn why people take them and what they might tell us about who we are and who others think we are. In particular, she wondered why African-Americans were among the earliest adopters of this new technology. The Social Life of DNA explains how individual genetic information gathered from take-at-home tests became a socio-political catalyst. Newly accessible genetic data have not only been used for ancestral roots seeking, but also to expose aspects of societal amnesia around American slavery. Some African-Americans turned to the test to reckon with, to quote Alondra, "the unfinished business of slavery and its lasting shadows of racial discrimination and economic inequality." Yet, as she cautions, "DNA can offer an avenue towards recognition but cannot stand in for reconciliation, which encompasses voice, acknowledgment, mourning, forgiveness, and healing." Alondra's earlier award winning book, titled Body and Soul, the Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, examines a related set of issues through the lens of the little known health activism of the Black Panthers. In Body And Soul, Alondra tells the fascinating history of the Black Panthers' community clinics, including the country's first grassroots genetic screening program, which was set up to test for sickle cell anemia. Currently, Alondra is at work on a new book on science and technology policy in the Obama Administration. And it is the subject of her talk today. Alondra began her teaching career at Yale University after earning a PhD in American Studies from New York University. Since 2009, she's been on the faculty at Columbia, where she's also served as director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Inaugural dean of social science and founding co-chair of the Precision Medicine and Society Program, she also spearheaded Columbia University's participation in the Obama Administration's collaborative to advance equity through research. Today, as president of the Social Science Research Council, Alondra leads national and international efforts to advance research for the public good and works to mobilize scholarship and resources to tackle pressing questions with implications for policy, equity, science, and much more. It's hard to imagine a better person for this critical work and for today's lecture. And now, please join me in welcoming Alondra Nelson to the stage. [APPLAUSE] - Thank you so much, Dean Brown-Nagin, again, for that incredibly generous introduction. And special greetings to a few people. I was so happy to have so many dear friends here. I want to thank, as I begin, Kim Davis. I'm delighted to be here under the auspices of the Kim and Judy Davis Dean's Lecture. I want to send special greetings to Daniel Carpenter, who I know plays a special role here at the Radcliffe in the Social Sciences. And I have to say, those of you who study bureaucracy or the state, as I am trying to do for the very first time, we would be completely lost without Daniel and without his work on the FDA and other regulatory capture and the like. Greetings to Marina Whitman, who is a member of the SSRC advisory board visiting committee, who's here and, I think, a Radcliffe alum. And also to two of the most important mentors in my life, Evelyn Hammonds and Patricia Williams, who I'm delighted to see and who have supported me, quite literally, for decades. I think I wouldn't have tenure without either of them, truth be told. So I've been busy doing administrative work. But I think one must always do our research. It's the thing that brings us to graduate school. It's the questions that we have about the world. So I'm working at a more glacial pace than would be desired. But I am working, nonetheless, and have been spending about the last year and a half talking to staffers in the Obama Administration, starting mostly with junior staffers who worked, many of them, across the whole eight years of the administration, and continuing forward. So I'm going to tell you a story-- I think that'll be a wistful story for some of you-- about the recent past and give you some ideas about-- it's too soon to, I think, make any proclamations about the legacy of the Obama Administration. But I just want to make some gestures about what I think was particularly important with regards to that administration's work with science and technology. So I told you it'd be a little wistful. Here are two images. One of the very first magazine covers of the Obama era, Paging Dr. Obama, obviously, a Time cover about the Affordable Care Act and all of the controversy and political debate that would come with it. And his very last cover from Popular Science, in which he did an interview summing up his work in the administration, in particular, talking about science. So in that arc, from the beginning to the end, it's easy to gather data, if one looks, about how this was probably one of the most extraordinary experiments in federal science and technology policy. And I'm going to offer you a few data points, to begin, for why that's the case. But my talk will really be about what is a hidden facet of this work, the ethical framing that I think is important. So this is Obama pictured with his science advisor, John Holdren, your colleague here. And it's really probably not since the influential tenure of Vannevar Bush in the US Office of Scientific Research and Development in the mid 20th century, during President Franklin Roosevelt's tenure, that science had played such a powerful role in a presidential administration. So Holdren was not only director of the Obama Office of Science and Technology Policy, he held two other hats besides. He was co-chair of the Presidential Council on Science and Technology, PCAST, in addition to being OSTP director, and led a national council, as well. So it's little clear to see here than it is on my screen. So this is the configuration of the Obama Science OSTP. Holdren held the top three roles-- OSTP director. He was a co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, as well as the Chair of the National Science and Technology Council. So in other administrations, different people had held all of these roles. Holdren held them simultaneously. You'll also see that the OSTP built out lots of different work that included the STEM fields, energy science, climate science, cybersecurity, and the like. And a phrase that came up often in folks that I talked to, who worked in the OSTP, was that science touches everything. So this was a kind of ethos of the Obama OSTP. Part of the reason why Holdren and other people working in the administration would be dual hatted or tri-hatted it in their positions in the administration was because they felt like there needed to be an expansive and capacious way to how they thought about doing their work. So PCAST, this Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, were external advisors. These included folks like Eric Schmidt of Alphabet, Rick Levin, then president of Yale who went on to Coursera. And you can see that in their work, they did some of the work that gave framing and shape to some of the important initiatives of the Obama Office of Science and Technology Policy. So big data, K to 12 STEM education, health care, and health care information, data informatics, and the like. So Holdren would co-chair this entity with Eric Lander and Harold Varmus. More generally, the Obama Administration appointed many prominent scientists to his administration and to advisory boards, including five Nobel laureates and 28 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Moreover, this PCAST was more active than any of their predecessor bodies in the three prior presidential administrations. So they, over eight years, published 36 publications, like these here. By comparison, there were about 12 in the former W. Bush Administration. There were 46 meetings over eight years. By comparison, there were 30, 21, and 20 in the prior three administrations. And for the first time, members of PCAST were given security clearances. So they could offer advice to the president and his administration on cybersecurity and other important, sensitive issues. So this was one facet of the way that the Obama science apparatus-- the way federal science under Obama was distinctive in the way that it was put together. Also distinctive was that over the course of the eight years of his presidency, Obama published 13 journal articles. Many of these were advocacy articles. They're not putting us all to shame. They were commentaries. So Harvard Law Review, New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, Nature and Science, just to name a few. So these are just examples from late in his administration, where he's trying to make the case for all that they did. He's tired. He's saying these are all the things that we did, including, notably, the commentary from the Harvard Law Review on criminal justice and the important work that his OSTP would do around forensic science. This would be the last paper that he would publish in Science, making the case for energy policy, certainly in the weeks before the Paris Climate Accord would fall apart. Then there was the euphoria of the Obama Administration. That was also distinctive. So he brought to the White House for the first time the White House Science Fairs. They ran to really celebrate the winners of local and regional STEM and science competitions in K to 12. And they ran from 2010 to 2017. And they, since, are no longer going strong. So here's young Obama with not so much gray hair with a young boy with a projectile. Older Obama holding a model of a flu bug in his hand at one of the later science fairs. So he would inaugurate them working with a gentleman named Kumar Garg, who worked for eight years in the Obama OSTP. And this would be distinctive, as well. So we got a sense of how distinctive the Obama approach to science was. Because with the establishment of the Trump Administration, it became very clear. So just to think about the staffers in the OSTP, at its height, there were 143 staffers. And when the Trump Administration was established and came to the White House, there were about 30 staffers. And I think now, there are about 40. So it also gives you a scale of the investment and staffing. What I want to suggest to you this afternoon is that there's a less obvious impact, or influence, or something distinctive about the Obama OSTP, and this particular federal approach to science, which was a kind of ethical framing. So I'm taking this up as a way to frame a larger project, which is a book project that will be about moonshots. I'm working on moonshots in the Obama Administration. That will include the BRAIN Initiative, white papers and initiatives on Big Data and AI, the first national Nudge unit, Social and Behavioral Research Team, taking place in the White House. Precision Medicine, which I'll talk about today, and the Cancer Moonshot. And in discussing this, as I said, I'll draw on some of the interviews I conducted, as well as content analysis, my own experience, and one of the ethical framing performances of the Big Data and AI, as well as quite a few of Obama's speeches, as you'll see in his own presentation of self with regards to ethics in science. So the moonshot, of course, comes from a famous speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas, September, 1962. John F. Kennedy ascended a podium in front of a large crowd gathered at a stadium, at Rice. And he really made the case for the goal of sending rockets and men to the moon, the goal of technological innovation, and the aspiration to use federal funding and federal human capital to do this in a limited time frame of two years. He says "but why, some say, the moon? Why climb the highest mountain? We choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it will be easy, but because it will be hard." The moonshot, of course, has been taken up in other parlance. Of course, one of the Obama big initiatives launched in 2016 with Vice President Joe Biden leading it is a $1.8 billion investment in cancer research, called the Cancer Moonshot. It's also the case that the moonshot, today, is understood as being any kind of ambitious project. The moonshot is used to talk about what was called Google X, now X, an incubator project for innovative science and technology. But it should be noted here that the Google Moonshot are really about a problem to a project to design to a particular kind of outcome. That makes them a little bit different from the federally funded ones. So I want to suggest to you that throughout the course of this administration, and even in his time as senator, that President Obama very much understood, I think, two things. And we see them as well in his memoir. Sort of the sense that science was going to be important to his administration, for reasons that I will say a little bit more about. But I think in his person and also in his presentation of self, as I said, it was very important for him to always give voice to the ways in which science had failed and had been used for pernicious ways. So this is him from a speech in 2016. He's the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima, notably not to make an apology, but to give a speech. In this speech, he says, "technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution, as well." Early in his administration, you may recall, he was asked to be a commencement speaker at Notre Dame. And it was highly controversial, because he was an explicitly pro-life candidate and also a candidate who was committed to advancing, to a limited degree, stem cell research, which was a contrast with the prior administration of George W. Bush. So part of what he says in his speech that day, in May of 2009, is "let us be sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science but also in clear ethics." So I want to demonstrate today that the sort of ethical terrain that Obama and his administration endeavor to work around and through is dealing with the past and really having to reckon with the past. They have to overcome citizen skepticism related to the history of experimental abuse. They have to establish ethical regulations, in part, so new science, new moonshots can go forward. And they have to generate a perception of ethical forethought. That the moonshots that they are proceeding with have been thought about, that these are considered moves. And in this way, they are distinctive from someone like Vannevar Bush, who I mentioned earlier. In the historical archive, in the secondary literature about Bush and about the Manhattan Project and the formation of what would become the atom bomb, there are, I think, poignant reflections on this from folks like Oppenheimer, only a few years later. What was striking to me about the historical record on Bush is that there was never a sense in his conversations and in his work, and certainly, not in this masterful biography from Pascal Zachary, that they thought they should had to ask anybody. That there was any sense of accountability on the part of Bush, although it might have not been true of others on the Manhattan Project team, that there was anyone that had to be engaged in this process. And moreover, in some cases in the biography, Zachary writes about Bush being asked whether or not there should be any kind of what we might call today ethical engagement or conversation about whether or not this would proceed, and found it utterly unnecessary. So part of what we're seeing here, I want to suggest, is the creation and extension of an ethical frame that a few decades prior, and certainly a few presidential administrations prior, did not exist. And I'm going to track this for you in a few ways, this afternoon. First, beginning with the formation of the ELSI Program that emerges alongside the Human Genome Project in 1990. So the Human Genome Project begins. And soon after, there is a working group that would become a project on the ethical, legal, and social implications of that project. Its original mandate included identifying and defining issues that were related to the Human Genome Project, policies for addressing them, with 3% to 5% of the annual Human Genome Project budget. And this has been discussed in some quarters as the largest ethics project in human history. So I want to bring to our attention that initially, the ELSI project-- the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of the Human Genome Project-- was actually quite broad and capacious. That it covered a lot of territory that it would not cover in the end, highlighting a little bit here, for you Privacy and fair use of genetic information with respect to employers and insurers, but also direct marketers, banks, credit raters, law enforcement agencies, and many others. The availability of large amounts of genetic information and largely unprotected databanks, possible discriminatory misuse of genetic information, and the fact that the use of genetic information and genetic screening could exacerbate the creation of a genetic underclass. But by 1991, the scope of ELSI is significantly narrowed. So the issues here are privacy and fair use of personal genetic information, genetics in the workplace, and genetic education. So you continue to see articles like this in the Human Genome News, which was the official newsletter of the project. But what we might call the more radical interpretations of what ELSI might have been, and its ability to not only be downstream, as critics of ELSI would come to say, but also anticipatory in thinking about how genetic data might be used in the marketplace, for example, for purposes of bias and discrimination are shaved off of the scope of this work. So even though the work narrows from this initial mission, from this to this, it also expands. So by the early aughts, ELSI has gone from being a project that runs in parallel, an ethical analog to the Human Genome Project, to also being part of a conversation about nanotechnology. So it's expanding from the Human Genome Project to nanotechnology. Paul Rabanow and Gaiman Bennett, in 2012, publish a fascinating, poetic, sometimes confusing book-- but a very interesting book on their engagement and trying to be an ELSI partner for synthetic biology as it's emerging, a few years later, in the early 20th century. So what we can track if we follow even the narrow ELSI is a sort of expansion of an ELSI frame from the Human Genome Project to nanotech synthetic biology and other forms. So those of you who work in the life sciences know that there's pretty much the ELSI of everything. Any project that you do can and often must, depending on who's funding it, have an ELSI component. And I want to argue that by the time we get to the Obama administration, there's been a full sail ethical turn, such that to do federal science means to be expected to have some forms of accountability and to be able to at least perform answers to certain questions about the implications of moonshots. So ELSI is one origin or one pillar of why I think this ethical framing comes to be prominent in the Obama administration. And another is the administration that preceded it. So here's Obama pictured again with John Holdren. Holdren, whom he appoints before he becomes president-- so to give you a comparison, George W. Bush didn't nominate and then have appointed his first director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy until almost a year into the administration. And we know, of course, that President Trump did not nominate someone until well a year into his administration. So it was really uncommon for someone to be nominated before a new president even takes office. And it's certainly the case that, as I said, early in his administration, indeed, here in his inaugural address, Obama places front and center his commitment to restoring science to its rightful place in his administration. Part of what that meant was a reaction to what they understood Obama and many of his science advisors to have been-- a politicized bioethics that emerged by conservative ideologues during the Bush administration. For them, that was really summed up in the case of Terry Shiavo. You'll see on her gravestone, here, that was commissioned by her husband. She departed this earth on February 25, 1990, and was at peace in March, 2005. So between 1990 and 2005, of course, there is a contest between her husband, who said that to abide by her wishes would be to allow her to depart this earth in February, 1990, and her parents, who insisted on keeping her in a vegetative state. And then all around, a raging public discourse about the right to life and the way in which this controversy was abducted into that conversation. So as a senator, Senator Obama is already engaged in trying to think about how to think about the relationship between religion and science or religion and reason. This is a speech that he gives in 2006, in Washington DC, in an ecumenical religious forum. He says, "I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality. I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality, and ethics, and values without pretending they're something that they're not." So part of a group of people, a group scholars-- bioethicists, in particular-- galvanize around a project that they call Science Progress. And some of them would personally identify in contradistinction to those who were the bioethicists, who understood themselves to be conservative, as progressive bioethicists. So two exhibits, A and B, from that time period are these books edited by Jonathan Marino, a prominent bioethicist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, at present. But at the time, he was a senior fellow and the founder of the Science Progress Project at the Center for American Progress. And here, you see the kind of ELSI frame and a bioethics frame expanding broadly just in these two edited collections. So you have more than the life sciences, here. They're talking about progress in bioethics and ethics frames around electronic medical records, solar energy, broadband, neuroscience, and organizational innovation. So the expansion of this ethical framing is happening here, among other places. The Science Progress Project was launched under the presidency of John Podesta, who had been chief of staff under the Clinton Administration, and was allowing these bioethicists to galvanize and create programming and strategy around what they would want to do when the administration of George W. Bush and the conservative bioethicists who were advising him would move on. So what's interesting here are, I think, claims that are not always associated with the left. So Science Progress understood that coming out of the era of social movements of the '60s and '70s, that science had to be participatory. That it was inherently political. It was a project of progressive science policy, as I said. And they also understood or wanted to assert that one could combine ethics and innovation and ethics and reason, and that these things were not diametrically opposed. And this was part of the particularly progressive framing that they wanted to advance. So I should say that Marino, the co-editor of both of these volumes, the leader of the Science Progress Project at the Center for American Progress, would be a member of Obama's transition team from 2008 to 2009. John Podesta, who played a role here, as well, by 2014, is working in the Obama White House and is working on many of the moonshot launches, including the launches of the AI and Big Data projects that happen around that time. So as I mentioned, it's also the case that Senator Obama was engaged in issues around genetics and ethics. So in 2006 and also in 2007, he introduces with Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina the Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act both of 2006 and 2007. And versions of this act would be introduced by other legislators after Obama entered the White House. But this was very much front and center for him and his time, in his few years in the Senate. So what this act endeavored to, in its words, "improve access to and utilization of valid, reliable genetic tests, and to secure the promise of personalized medicine for all Americans." So while neither President Obama's bill nor the subsequent versions from him and other legislators were ever enacted, much of what was here was ultimately incorporated into the 21st Century Cures Act that was signed by President Obama, in December of 2016, towards the end of his presidency. In this 21st Century Cures Act, some of you might know, include not only the $1.8 billion for the Cancer Moonshot that I mentioned, but also $1.5 billion for precision medicine, for its infrastructure, and for the larger project of it. Notably, Obama would note that it was important to him that ethical guardrails were placed around the issue of personalized medicine before it could move forward. So here is a report from the GINA Act, which I'll say a little bit more about-- the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008. And his reaction to it, according to a staffer, was that Obama said that he wanted to do the genomics bill, this act of 2006 and 2007. But that he didn't want to go anywhere with it until GINA passes. Sort of the sense that we had to have some sort of protective regulations in place before one could move forward. So the GINA Act, of course, in short, was signed into law by George Bush and enacted in November, 2009. It protects against the use of genetic information to discriminate in the provision of health care and also with regards to employment. So moving forward to January, 2015, when President Obama, in the State of the Union address, would announce a $215 million investment. Later, by 2016, as I've just mentioned, in this 21st Century Cures Act, the total investment would be $1.5 billion to launch this Precision Medicine Act. So he said, "tonight, I'm launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes." And I want to also highlight this second part. "And to give us all access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier." So on the one hand is research investment. On the other hand, a recognition that will become clearer as I go on about the role that he's trying to create for the individual, citizen, consumer, patient in a Precision Medicine Initiative. So in brief, the Precision Medicine Initiative is a research endeavor that aims to understand how a person's genetics, environment, and lifestyle can help to determine the best approach to prevent or treat disease. Short term goals, as announced by NIH, include expanding precision medicine in the area of cancer research and to increase knowledge of genetics and the biology of cancer. A long term goal, bringing precision medicine to all areas of health and health care on a large scale. But all of this faced some of the hurdles that I mentioned, previously. So just to repeat these, they needed to overcome citizen skepticism related to the history of experimental abuse. They needed to establish some ethical regulations. And the GINA Act of 2008 was a first step in doing this. And also to generate a perception of ethical forethought. So I'm going to talk a little bit about one and three, now. So Obama announces on January 15, 2015, in the State of the Union address, the Precision Medicine Initiative. And about two weeks later, he has a launch event in the east room of the White House. And here, you see one of the things he does again and again, which hearkens back to, some ways more or less explicitly, a history of abuse. That would give people misgivings about precision medicine. And tries to encourage people that they should move forward. So he says here at this launch, "we've got to figure out, how do we make sure that if I donate my data to this big pool that it's not going to be misused? That it's not going to be commercialized in some way I don't know about? And so we've got to set up a series of structures." So part of the structures was a series. This is a fascinating document on privacy and trust principles. At its most radical, it's asserting a right to citizen science, a right for individual consumers to be able to use their genome, and to have access to the information that their genetic information and genetic data might provide. It asserts a strong right to privacy. It asserts a 21st century version of a patients' bill of rights or research subjects' bill of rights. It's a very aspirational document. And indeed, it's a document about any legal bearings. So it's kind of all aspiration. But it's a very interesting historical document that, I think, we'll be talking about for a long time. Because it very much bears the imprimatur, I think, in some ways, of many of the kind of Silicon Valley diaspora that come to work in the Obama administration, that take pay cuts, who very much believe in the work that's being done here to advance science and technology policy. And bring with them a very kind of romantic idea of what science and technology can do. Another quote from Obama that gets him in trouble, "I would like to think that if someone does a test on me or my genes, that that's mine. But that's not always how we define these issues. So there's some legal issues involved, as well." So within a few hours, The New York Times is talking about how the president weighs in on data from genes. Because as many of us know, your genomic data does not belong to you. Someone captures it in a laboratory. And indeed, George Contreras, who's a law professor at the University of Utah, who I interviewed recently, who went to law school with Obama, here at HLS, writes this rejoinder to President Obama. That says in part, "US courts have repeatedly denied individual censorship claims over data derived from their cells and tissue. Just imagine the chaos that would ensue if each of the million participants in the Precision Medicine Initiative could claim ownership over discoveries that were made after large pools of DNA were analyzed." So imagine, indeed. So President Obama and his staff realized that they had to, for all sorts of reasons, sell it. So this is, as far as I can tell, the only of their big projects that had two launches. So there's the January 2015 launch. That's a couple of weeks after the State of the Union address, in which Obama launches this. Then there's a summit a year later. Which he engages researchers, the woman here, from the Broad Institute, research scientists to talk about, in a public way-- this was streamed-- what the Precision Medicine Initiative might be able to accomplish. But also to give voice from the perspective of patients, consumers, health care economists-- what some of the challenges might be. So there's lots of conversation, most of it initiated by him about privacy fears, about fears of genetic discrimination, about the need for new safeguards, and also the need for more nimble regulation if something like precision medicine should take off in the United States. Actually, I think this is fascinating. It's 42 minutes. It's really interesting, because President Obama is on the stage with actual scientists and takes it upon himself to talk about the science. So there's also this odd-- as someone who really admires expertise, as he does, he's also very learned and very much wanted to demonstrate that he had learned quite a lot about genome wide association studies, and the need for diverse databases, and all these sorts of things. So it's a fascinating performance of the ethical framing that I'm talking about. And also, it's an interesting Obama presidency moment. So part of what they're talking about in this conversation is anticipation of a facet of the Precision Medicine Initiative called All of Us, which is an endeavor to recruit 1 million volunteers from around the United States to provide genetic data, biological samples, and other health information. Because the genetic data is not useful without the other health information. And also to encourage open data sharing. So there's this open science, citizen science piece of this that remains. Volunteers will be able to access their health information as well as research that uses their data. So as President Obama would suggest in this conversation, this summit at which, again, they're really trying to sell people. And they're trying to get people to overcome their skepticism, variously, about why this should go forward. So they're really selling it at this second summit. It's important that these be, as he describes, diverse databases. And so the face of all of us often looks something like this. We need a million person database that, quite frankly, is probably over sampled for people of color, if the sort of types of big data analysis that wants to be accomplished can be accomplished, there. And this remains a central issue. This is an article that a colleague, Maleeha Fullerton, published with a colleague in Nature, called Genomics is Failing on Diversity, about the lack of diversity in genetic databases. That really gave a sense of urgency to the All of Us initiative. If it's the case that we need to have more diverse databases, how are we going to get there? This is data from the same article about the bias, with regards to genetic samples that they're significantly majority genetic samples of European ancestry, that have, obviously, analytic implications for the import of the work if precision medicine works, and if this Precision Medicine Initiative is to go forward. So there's a kind of fever to get these more diverse databases. It's also part of the express mission of the All of Us Initiative. But all of this is occurring against a backdrop in which other things with data are happening. So Nancy Secola, in the Wall Street Journal, in 2013, would name Obama-- I call him, for this talk, the ELSI Presidency. She calls him the Big Data Presidency, but not because of the PMI. She calls him the Big Data Presidency because she's writing here about the NSA and about the surveillance infrastructure that the Obama administration-- another thing distinctive to science and technology in the Obama administration-- expanded more than any administration prior. So all of us in the Precision Medicine Initiative are happening at a time where we have a ratcheting up in public discourse of conversation about big data, more generally, and concerns about surveillance, both on the part of a cyber security infrastructure and on the part of private companies. Such that, this is from Stat News, by 2017, it's the case that we're being told that in order to advance medicine's future-- and this is an article on how the NIH is endeavoring through all of us to win the trust of communities who had been mistreated in the past-- as a central challenge to the work that they're doing. So this is from that 2015 announcement of the first launch of the PMI, in the east room at the White House. President Obama pictured there with Francis Collins, director of the NIH, and Harold Varmus, who, for a time, was co-chair with John Holdren and Eric Lander of the President Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. So this is a moment of possibility and aspiration, as I said. But it also takes a few years. This is 2015. It's not really until late 2017, early 2018, that the real enrollment for all of us begins. And I should say that my university, Columbia, working with Mt. Sinai and some other institutions in New York City, is one of the enrollment centers for the Precision Medicine Initiative. So what's also happening in big data? So this is how Wired chooses to cover the launch of the NIH All of Us enrollment. The first line here, from this piece from May of 2018, is about Cambridge Analytica, and talks about the challenges that the NIH and all of us will face with the Precision Medicine Initiative, in which the public is increasingly concerned about data. Washington Post, "NIH seeks health data of 1 million people, with genetic privacy suddenly an issue," again, from May of 2018. So I want to suggest here that, as I describe in my book that Dean Brown-Nagin so generously described, The Social Life of DNA, part of what is happening with regards to the Precision Medicine Initiative is that the ways in which ideas about data and DNA are elaborated in one social site actually affect how people think about them in other places. So it is the case, for example, that people that I interviewed about direct to consumer ancestry testing would often reference things like the use of genetics in the criminal justice system. In this case, to exonerate a man who'd been wrongly in prison for 25 years, who was exonerated through the work of the Innocence Project, which has freed just under 300 people over more than a decade of work. Also happening, particularly in the new presidential administration, are debates about whether DNA testing and DNA analysis should be used to reunite immigrant families in a political moment in which anti-immigrant fears and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States is pronounced. As well as the use of databases by the criminal justice system without warrants and other legal regulations being met. So part of what I want to suggest is that as we move from Obama, the ELSI President, the Big Data President, and also the Black President, who I think holds a particular place and can say particular things about how genetics might be misused, how data might be misused. But also in the way that was true of his presidency, allow people to trust him as his person and a person. Much of this is lost in the Trump presidency. I think that few could imagine launching a Precision Medicine Initiative, I think, in the same way under a Trump presidency. But here we have an initiative that is moving forward. And it's moving forward to an enrollment stage at a time where there are legitimate concerns about genetics and about data, more generally. So the ELSI frame-- that becomes the frame, in part, for federal science, I argue, in the Obama administration-- has faced lots of criticism. As early as 2003, the science and technology studies scholar, Landon Winter, who was testifying at a committee on the ELSI of nanotechnology, would say, "there is a tendency for those to conduct research about the ethical dimensions of emerging technology to gravitate towards the more comfortable even trivial questions involved, avoiding issues that might become a focus of conflict. People in bioethics rarely say no." And one might say the same of the Obama Administration's approach to its ethical framing. So while it did give voice to mistreatment of the past, it did do a kind of performance that allowed people, if they wanted to, overcome the skepticism that they had. They were never meant to be engagements, conversations, performances, public events that were intended for people to say no. It was always the case that the moonshots would proceed. It was always the case that the moonshots would be funded almost exclusively through federal appropriation, in this case. Because Obama's funding was blocked in other ways. But they also knew, as an entity, as an organization, that they had to have a flight plan. That there had to be some public performance, some public voice to ethical guardrails and concerns. We can hope that as we move forward in thinking about the ethical turn more generally in US culture with regards to data ethics, computer science ethics, genetics and ethics, and the like, that we might hark back to a time in 1990, where we imagined that an ethical orientation to science and technology could be broad and capacious. It could include unprotected data banks. It could include a genetic underclass now well in formation, law enforcement agencies, as well. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] - I'm Nick Patterson I'm a geneticist and I've worked extensively on African-American medical genetics. And I just wanted to tell you a small incident, which I think is revealing about the difficulties of interacting with scientific research and law enforcement. I was involved in a cardiovascular study on African-Americans. We were seeking genetic links to heart disease in the African-American community. This is something called the Jackson Heart Study. And it was centered in Mississippi. The response we got from the African-American community down there was much worse than we thought. We got fewer people signed up. And the key thing was that many, many members of the African-American community said, if I give you my DNA, will it be available to law enforcement? And the answer is, under subpoena, absolutely, yes. Thank you very much. We don't want to know anymore. So that's a real difficulty. You have an ethics community in the White House. You have law enforcement organizations, sometimes at state level, who aren't the least interested in what the White House is saying. And the whole thing interacts in very complex ways, often not very advantageous. I don't really have a model, here. But I wonder if you have. - Well, I guess one thing I would say is that it needs to be OK for people to say no. So I think that we need to be able to have a conversation in which folks should say no. And there's not a sense of entitlement to people's DNA information is one thing I would offer. I thought, actually, you were going to say something about the Tuskegee Experiment or the Holocaust. These are the kinds of, particularly in the social science literature and medicine, stories that come up more often about people's refusal or skepticism, about African-Americans in particular, about participating in such studies. But the headlines that I ended with, certainly, when I first started working with people around contemporary genetics issues, post-human genome genetics, conversations I would have with African-Americans-- it was certainly the case that the criminal justice system was mentioned. But there were all sorts of other fears that people had, as well. I think as we continue to have these high profile cases in which not only are folks exonerated-- and we should say that something like the Innocence Project only makes sense in a society in which you incarcerate 2.3 million people, many of them without cause. But as these cases come to light of surreptitious DNA collection by criminal justice authorities, the use of what people thought were citizen science databases that they were participating in with other geneticists to learn more about their families, being used, again, without subpoena, without a warrant by the criminal justice system, that it's only going to get more challenging. So I would say to you that if you were to go ahead and do that now, in the face of two summers, now, of these stories about how pernicious the criminal justice authorities have been and their use of these open databases, that your yield would be less, still. Thanks for your comment. - Doctor Nelson, that was fantastic. Thank you. - Thank you. - I'm thinking with my capture hat on. - Yes. - And I am wondering-- and I'm just I'm looking forward to reading the book and learning more-- what was the role of commercial corporate enterprises in this process? And once upon a time, recognizing as I say this-- and I'll just leave the answer to you-- we would have thought, well, the drug companies or biopharma. But in the world that you're describing, as you know undoubtedly better than I do, it's these networks of capital, and science, and technology. Venture capital funds, hedge funds, Silicon Valley, which is the new biggest player in health care, in combination with these. And so just an open ended question that I'd just love to know more about is, what were the pressure points that you've seen in the Obama administration, including in some of these groups, Holdren's groups, and others for what you might call industrial interests? - Yes. You won't be surprised to hear that the industrial interests were significant. Yes, right. But distinctive in that many of them were for Silicon Valley. So you had, I think, instead of having the K Street lobby situation, you had people who-- in some cases, young entrepreneurs or VCs from Silicon Valley-- were really engaging with the federal government for the first time. And engagement, as opposed to we just want to disrupt it. It was actually, we will go. We will take meetings and the like. So that was certainly part of it. Part of what I've heard a lot in the conversations with staffers is that you'll recall that the Obama Administration did a lot of commitments. So My Brother's Keeper, for example, would be one of these commitments. Which partly because the Obama administration was really blocked in getting funding for things through the legislature, they were, I think, made to do more and be more creative in these commercial partnerships. And so they borrowed this commitment model from the Clinton Foundation. It's the Clinton Global Foundation-- it's the private public commitments model. And do quite a lot of that. But it becomes not so much a free market, ideological commitment. But I think there's that, of course. But also, I think this happens a lot. The strategy that they're left with, given that they can't get money out of the legislature, right? Given that in the first few hours after Obama is first president, Mitch McConnell is basically like, we will frustrate anything you try to do, forever. And that has implications for what they're able to do and who they must partner with in the work that they do in science. Also this is a total nerdy, Daniel Carpenter thing. Given what I've learned from you about bureaucracy, but it also had implications for how they did their work. So they couldn't appoint people. Because you couldn't get any appropriations lines to appoint people. So the Innovation Fellows, which I was just like, it was so amazing. The first interviews I was doing, I was just like, oh, it was so amazing. You guys did this Innovation Fellows. And someone sort of said to me flatly, you know why we had to do that? It's because we didn't have any budget lines to make any appointments. But you can appoint a Fellow. The president can appoint Fellows all day and try to figure out how to get funding to support them. So it's partly not a new story about capture. But it's partly about what happens in a presidential administration with a deeply recalcitrant legislative branch, and how they try to work around that. - Hi, thank you for this. I wanted to ask you a little bit more about how the current public conversation around the ethics of big data is impacting the way that this ethical framing is taking form. Because if I think back to the early days of the Human Genome Project and the emergence of the ELSI agenda, you can see pretty clearly how it is that the HIV AIDS epidemic that was taking place in that historical moment, that impacted what people were thinking about in terms of ethical issues. But here, the connection seems a little bit looser to me, in that you have a lot of public conversation about data privacy, and the right to privacy. While at the same time, you have a very pro information bias in what's happening in the Precision Medicine Initiative. That's about access to research as a good, right? So I'm wondering if you can just draw those links a little bit closer about how it is that the important ethical conversations of this historical moment are shaping what's going on today? - Yeah, thank you for that. That's a really great question. And I'm not sure that I'll have a totally complete answer, but I'll endeavor one. So I think we see it a little bit in the quote that I pulled about Obama saying, if that's my DNA, then that's me. And you see it as well in that document of privacy and trust principles. So it's very much about putting the individual consumer, as data point, data supplier, in the driver's seat of making decisions about privacy and access to their data. Even as we know that that's not the legal standard, it very much gives voice to that as a sort of ethos and as an ideal. And so the ethical complication is that the ELSI-- and the Paul Rabinow slide that I put up suggests this, as well-- as it's designed, is really downstream. So you build the technology. And then you decide or have some conversation about what happens with it. As opposed to a project like PMI, which would really require a more anticipatory, or upstream, or midstream approach. Something where you're asking questions as it's happening and engaging individuals in communities with regards to how they think about it. So there is a mismatch. I think you're right. And why the dots don't connect is that I think what we expect for ethics in this moment are different from the formative ELSI moment, with regards to ELSI information, as opposed to being solely downstream, after the project is all but baked. What Rabinow uses as a distinction that's very useful is that he distinguishes-- I should say Rabinow and Bennet-- between what he calls cooperation and collaboration. And so for him, with the ELSI work, cooperation is like the bioethicists, the social scientists are supposed to be here working on a parallel track that does not intersect at all any of the science or miss any of it up. It's really like get out of here. And what they were imagining when they got involved in the Systems Bio ELSI Project was collaboration-- that there would be conversations early on. What does it mean that we don't yet have laws that allow people to say that their data is theirs? How are we going to think about that? What are we going to do about that? And that was really kind of forestalled in the project. So I think you're right. The dots don't connect, because there's a new, larger ethical conversation that is emerging. And I was talking to students today in the Radcliffe Student Program about the ethical turn has not only come to federal science. It's come to how we think about society, more generally. We actually think the ethics of data ethics is a kind of panacea for everything. And obviously, that's quite dangerous and obviously not true. But it also means that we don't use words like discrimination, justice, injustice. Ethics fills that space, as well. So that's another backdrop that makes, I think, the ELSI piece a bit both inadequate for this moment and a little murky. - Thank you for that. - Hi. - Hi. - I'm a biologist and chemist in the chemistry grad program at MIT. And as biologists, we get data. And then it's up to us to decide what it means. And there's a couple of places where I'm a little bit concerned about that. If the milk chugging challenge is any indication, white supremacists will take meaningless biological distinctions and twist and turn them upside down until they say something that justifies their bigoted bullshit. And then in a more subtle distinction, biologists tend to take doctors' word for it in terms of what is a pathology, despite the known history, in which being gay and trans used to be listed in the DM5 as disorders. And now, we know how ridiculous that is. And biologists will continue to do GWA studies, trying to figure out which genes cause the autism disease without ever questioning whether autism is actually a disorder. And the vast majority of autistic people don't want to be cured. They want to be accepted. So I'm wondering. So let's say that we get all of these very broad, genetic studies to happen. People are willing to give up their data. Was their thought in the Obama administration about how to keep that data from being misinterpreted and misused? - Not at all. Your opening sentence was I'm a biologist and a chemist. And we use this data. And we don't say what it means. But of course, you do say what it means. - I said it is up to us to figure out. - It is up to you. And you are engaged, particularly if you're talking about human genetics, and about human disease, and a practice of creating classifications and categories that are racialized. And so then when the white supremacists take up, in another way, ways that we create algorithms and meanings out of data, we can be mad about it. Because it's disgusting. But we also can't be mad about it. Because it is another practice of classification and categorization. That is, I think, part of what science does at its best and at its worst. So there's no surprises there. And I think the cluster of things that you raised are about the issue of the politics and power of classification and how to think about that. And I think scientists have to be upfront about that. That's part of what the work is and that these categories travel in the world. A lot of my work has been how lay people and sometimes not lay people really take up scientific categories and use them for all sorts of political work. And the literature on not only Amy Harman's reporting in The Times, but the social science literature, Aaron Pinovsky and Joan Donovan's work on how white nationalists interpret genetic ancestry testing-- sorry to say, I guess, as a social scientist, happy to say that the mechanisms that I describe in my work with African-Americans are the same mechanisms. That's the same categories or those same schema in which ways people are making sense of what it means. It's negation, magical thinking, acceptance, sort of drilling down into the data. They're the same kind of gestures, unfortunately. - Thank you for a wonderful talk. Janet Rich-Edwards. I'm an epidemiologist here, at Harvard, and this year, a Radcliffe Fellow. - Great. - And my question is about-- this feels very internally domestic facing for the US. - Sure. - And I'm curious about, during this administration, attempts to coordinate, debate, discuss with other countries. And this feels like it's becoming even more relevant, for example, with the recent gene editing of human embryos from China. I'm just curious about how the administration thought about that. - I don't know. I haven't actually looked into that. If there are others who know more about it, do let me know. The thing about federal science is it's so nation state obsessed. Even one of the examples Jennifer-- of how the Personalized Genomics Act of 2006 to 2007 sort of uses the phrase of securing genomic medicine for all Americans. It's very much kind of a nationalist, sovereign project around genetics, even as we understand these things to sort be global and planetary in their scale and implications. I certainly wondered, actually, what an Obama administration would have said about lots of contemporary controversies in science, even around the issue of Cambridge Analytica, things that lack a regulation around big tech, and certainly with the gene editing. It's hard to know. I'll say this. I was a witness, or gave testimony, or had a conversation with some colleagues at the National Academies who did an NAS report on gene editing, and germline editing, and trying to distinguish between those and what might be done. And even people in that room, who I think knew better and think about these things on the global scale, in structure of the NHS, it's a kind of national conversation. So there would be gestures such as if we changed the germ line, we are changing all of human population. But somehow, that then could be captured back into a conversation about science in the United States. So I think in these kind of federal bodies, we do a disservice to what are planetary issues, as you suggest. - Thank you so much for this talk. I think I'm very persuaded by the question of ethical framing or the way that you're describing ethical framing. I wonder whether you could juxtapose this kind of ethical framing around medicine, and technology, and the technologies related to this particular program, particularly with the Obama administration's drone program. Because in the Obama administration, in 2012, they describe drones as, specifically, ethical. That was the language that they used. - Yeah. - And so it seems to me that there is a very interesting politics around ethics that's part of Obama, which I would love to hear just how you think about the specificity, here, but also juxtaposing those different ethical contexts. - Don't leave. Because I'd actually like to have a back and forth one about this. Something that just happened around drones, I've thought about this. And I think when I'm writing up the AI piece, I will write about drones. But the news last week is that the Trump Administration is no longer going to count drone deaths. So that was a moment where I thought, was it ethical to count drone deaths? Do we wish that we had an Obama Administration that thought that they were doing some sort of ethical exercise in the fact that they were offering some sort of public accountability to automated death squads? And so I don't have, I think, an easy answer. to that. Certainly, that's not ethical. And I'm not even sure. I use framing, and I use performance, because I don't want to suggest in a normative sense that this is ethical. But that we have reached a moment as a society that if you want to advance certain scientific endeavors, post Hiroshima, post name your-- Jacques Ranciere has this essay on the ethical turn in politics. And for him, it's a temporality that's post atrocity. It's any post atrocity turn then becomes the ethical politics. So I would want to forestall the use of ethical as a normative claim, but understand it as a necessary narrative of legitimation or a necessary practice of legitimation. - I think it's exactly correct. I just think there's something interesting. Because I think he puts himself very forward in this kind of ethical framing. You didn't see Obama that much when it came to the drone warfare. - That's right. No, I think that's-- well-- - Well-- - --yes and no. He wouldn't be having a summit on a stage talking about the misdeeds of the past. But there are some conversations with him about the drone stuff. [MUSIC PLAYING] - Join me in thanking Doctor Nelson for that wonderful lecture. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]


Abortion and contraception

In his write-in response to a 1998 survey, Obama stated his abortion position as conforming with the Democratic platform: "Abortions should be legally available in accordance with Roe v. Wade."[2] His presidential candidacy was endorsed by several groups advocating for legal abortion, including NARAL Pro-Choice America[3] and Planned Parenthood.[4] In August 2008, in Lake Forest, California, Obama responded to the question as to when life begins, "Whether you're looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade."[5]

In the Illinois state legislature, Obama opposed the Induced Infant Liability Act[6] and repeatedly voted against requirements and restrictions intended to stop what opponents label as "born alive" abortions.[7][8] Obama said that his opposition was because of technical language he felt might have "interfered with a woman's right to choose" and said Illinois law "already required medical care in such situations."[8][9]

Obama voted against a bill that would have made it a federal crime for anybody other than a parent to accompany a minor across state lines to obtain an abortion.[10]

He expressed displeasure with the Supreme Court ruling that upheld a ban on "partial-birth" abortions saying the ban didn't sufficiently consider the mother's health.[11][12] He has, however, expressed support of banning some late-term abortions, provided they include exemptions for the mental and physical health of the mother.[13]

During the third debate during the 2008 presidential election, Obama further detailed his stance on abortion:

"[...] there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, 'We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby'. Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that's where we can find some common ground, because nobody's pro-abortion. I think it's always a tragic situation. We should try to reduce these circumstances."[14]

Obama voted for a $100 million education initiative to reduce teen pregnancy and provide contraceptives to young people.[12]

Disability rights

Obama was the only Democratic presidential candidate to issue an unsolicited statement expressing his views on disability community issues.[citation needed] For example, he stated his intention to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and expressed his support of the ADA Restoration Act.[15]

Environmental policy and record

Addressing global warming, Obama stated:

The issue of climate change is one that we ignore at our own peril. There may still be disputes about exactly how much is naturally occurring, but what we can be scientifically certain of is that our continued use of fossil fuels is pushing us to a point of no return. And unless we free ourselves from a dependence on these fossil fuels and chart a new course on energy in this country, we are condemning future generations to global catastrophe.[16]

Obama has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 by creating a market-based cap-and-trade system.[16] He also has planned to improve air and water quality through reduced carbon emissions.[16]

Obama worked as a member of the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works during the 109th Congress.[17] During the presidential campaign, he rejected John McCain's proposed suspension of federal gas taxes, claiming that it would hurt consumers, hinder highway construction, and endanger jobs. Obama criticized the idea of a gas tax "holiday" as a ploy by his rivals "designed to get them through an election" and not actually help "struggling consumers".[18]

Native Americans

Obama has stated, "The bond that I would like to create between an Obama administration and the [Native American] nations all across this something that is going to be a top priority." Obama added that "few have been ignored by Washington for as long as native Americans – the first Americans" and that "too often Washington has paid lip service to working with tribes while taking a one-size-fits-all approach" and promised "that will change when I am president".[19]

Obama was given honorary membership into a Native American tribe, the Crow Nation. At a private adoption ceremony, Obama was given the Crow name "One Who Helps People Throughout the Land".[19]

Racial issues

Obama opposes offering reparations to the descendants of slaves. "I have said in the past – and I'll repeat again – that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed," Obama said. An apology for slavery would be appropriate but not particularly helpful in improving the lives of African Americans, he said. Reparations could also be a distraction, Obama said.[20] "I consistently believe that when it comes to whether it's Native Americans or African-American issues or reparations, the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just offer words, but offer deeds," Obama told a meeting in Chicago in July 2008.[21]

Obama's administration offered a brief in support of affirmative action in March 2010 vis-à-vis a court case seeking to challenge Grutter v. Bollinger and the legality of "race-conscious" college admissions.[22]

Following the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, President Obama gave a 20-minute speech on July 19, 2013, in which he addressed the shooting of Trayvon Martin, racial profiling, as well as the state of race relations in the United States.[23]

LGBT issues

The White House was illuminated in rainbow colors on the evening of the Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling.
The White House was illuminated in rainbow colors on the evening of the Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling.

On March 15, 2007, Obama stated, "I do not agree...that homosexuality is immoral."[24] During the July 23, 2007 CNN/YouTube debate, he further stated, "... we've got to make sure that everybody is equal under the law. And the civil unions that I proposed would be equivalent in terms of making sure that all the rights that are conferred by the state are equal for same-sex couples as well as for heterosexual couples."[25] Obama supports expanding the protections afforded by hate crimes statutes to cover crimes committed against individuals because of sexual orientation or gender identity. He also called for full equality for gays during his second inaugural address on January 21, 2013, saying, "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well." This was the first time that a president mentioned gay rights or the word "gay" in an inaugural address.[26][27]

LGBT in the military

He also stated his opposition to the U.S. military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, and signed a bill repealing it.[28]

LGBT and hate crimes

On October 28, 2009, Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability to the federal hate crimes law.[29]

LGBT and anti-discrimination laws

Obama has said that he would sign into law the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which — if passed — would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

On July 21, 2014, Obama signed Executive Order 13672, adding "gender identity" to the categories protected against discrimination in hiring in the federal civilian workforce and both "sexual orientation" and gender identity" to the categories protected against discrimination in hiring and employment on the part of federal government contractors and sub-contractors.[30][31]

LGBT adoption

Obama has said that he supports same sex couples adopting children. Obama extended the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 to cover employees taking unpaid leave to care for the children of same-sex partners.[32]

LGBT and religion

Obama was criticized[33] for inviting Reverend Donnie McClurkin, Mary Mary, and Reverend Hezekiah Walker – who all have a history of making anti-gay remarks – to participate in a three-day gospel music campaign tour called "Embrace the Courage", as part of Obama's "40 Days of Faith and Family" campaign in South Carolina.[34] The Obama campaign responded to criticism in a press release, saying, "I strongly believe that African Americans and the LGBT community must stand together in the fight for equal rights. And so I strongly disagree with Reverend McClurkin's views and will continue to fight for these rights as president of the United States to ensure that America is a country that spreads tolerance instead of division."[34] For events held on Sunday, October 28, 2007, Obama added Reverend Andy Sidden, an openly gay pastor.[35]

Openly-LGBT appointees

Sharon Lubinski, the first openly gay woman in her position, was formally nominated the U.S. marshal for the Minnesota district by President Obama[36] on October 2009 and then confirmed by the Senate in December of that year. On January 4, 2010, Amanda Simpson was appointed by Obama the Senior Technical Advisor to the U.S. Department of Commerce, being possibly the first transgender person appointed to a government post by any US President.[37][38][39] Monique Dorsainvil has served as the Deputy Director of Advance and Special Events[40] and Director of Planning and Events for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs before accepting the position of the White House's LGBT liaison in 2014.[41]

Same-sex marriage

Obama supported legalizing same-sex marriage when he first ran for the Illinois Senate in 1996.[42] Also, he was undecided about legalizing same-sex marriage when he ran for re-election to the Illinois Senate in 1998.[43] He even supported civil unions but not same-sex marriage when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and for U.S. President in 2008.[42] Obama voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. However, in a 2008 interview, he stated that he personally believed that marriage was "between a man and a woman" and that he was "not in favor of gay marriage."[44] He supported civil unions that would establish legal standing equal to that of marriage for same-sex couples, but believed that decisions regarding the definition of the word "marriage" should be left to the states.[25][45][46]

In December 2008, Obama called for repealing the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).[47]

On May 15, 2008, in a statement in response to the ruling of the California Supreme Court, Obama announced his opposition to Proposition 8, an initiative measure proposed for the 2008 California General Election ballot that would amend the California Constitution to define the word "marriage" as the union of a man and a woman.[48] In a letter that he read to the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club on June 29, 2008, Obama reiterated his opposition to the proposed amendment, stating that he supported the extension of "fully equal rights and benefits to same-sex couples under both state and federal law."[49]

On May 9, 2012, Obama told an interviewer that he supported same-sex marriage. He was the first sitting U.S. President to do so.[50] He stated:

... over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask Don't Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, 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.

On March 1, 2013, Obama, speaking about Hollingsworth v. Perry, the U.S. Supreme Court case about Proposition 8, he said:

When the Supreme Court asks do you think that the California law, which doesn't provide any rationale for discriminating against same-sex couples other than just the notion that, well, they're same-sex couples -- if the Supreme Court asks me or my attorney general or solicitor general, 'Do we think that meets constitutional muster?' I felt it was important for us to answer that question honestly. And the answer is no.

The administration's brief did not describe all state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, but argued that the proper standard to apply to laws that use sexual orientation as a category is "heightened scrutiny", which legal observers say no state ban could survive.[51]

In October 2014, President Obama told an interviewer, "Ultimately, I think the Equal Protection Clause does guarantee same-sex marriage in all fifty states". He praised the way the U.S. Supreme Court had addressed the issue, saying, "There have been times where the stars were aligned and the Court, like a thunderbolt, issues a ruling like Brown v. Board of Education, but that's pretty rare. And, given the direction of society, for the Court to have allowed the process to play out the way it has may make the shift less controversial and more lasting."[52]

Conversion therapy

In April 2015, Obama condemned the practice of conversion therapy in response to a petition calling for the practice to be banned.[53]

Sex education

As an Illinois State Senator, Obama supported Senate bill 0099 for "age and developmentally appropriate" sex education, which would have allowed parents to choose to withdraw their children from the classes.[54] The bill was endorsed by the Illinois Parent Teacher Association, the Illinois State Medical Society, the Illinois Public Health Association, and the Illinois Education Association.[55] In a debate in 2004, when questioned by Alan Keyes about what kind of sex education was "age appropriate" for kindergarteners, Obama said, "I'll give you an example, because I have a six-year-old daughter and a three-year-old daughter, and one of the things my wife and I talked to our daughter about is the possibility of somebody touching them inappropriately, and what that might mean. And that was included specifically in the law, so that kindergarteners are able to exercise some possible protection against abuse...."[56] In 2007, in response to a similar attack from Mitt Romney, an Obama spokesperson stated his position that communities should determine the curriculum.[57] The Illinois bill did not call for addressing all sex-related issues in kindergarten classes,[55] and Obama has said that he "does not support teaching explicit sex education to children in kindergarten."[58][59]


Obama has encouraged Democrats to reach out to evangelicals and other religious groups.[60] In December 2006, he joined Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) at the "Global Summit on AIDS and the Church" organized by church leaders Kay and Rick Warren.[61] Together with Warren and Brownback, Obama took an HIV test, as he had done in Kenya less than four months earlier.[62] He encouraged "others in public life to do the same" and not be ashamed of it.[63] Addressing over 8,000 United Church of Christ members in June 2007, Obama challenged "so-called leaders of the Christian Right" for being "all too eager to exploit what divides us."[64]

Embryonic stem cell research

Obama supports embryonic stem cell research and was a co-sponsor[65] of the 2005 Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act which was passed by both houses of Congress but vetoed by President Bush. Obama condemned Bush's veto, saying, "Democrats want this bill to pass. Conservative, pro-life Republicans want this bill to pass. By large margins, the American people want this bill to pass. It is only the White House standing in the way of progress – standing in the way of so many potential cures." He also voted in favor of the 2007 bill lifting restrictions on embryonic stem cell research that was passed but was also vetoed by President Bush.[66]

On March 9, 2009, President Obama signed Executive Order 13505, Allowing "responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law".[67] This executive order also served to revoke Executive Order 13435, signed on June 20, 2007 by President Bush.

Marijuana decriminalization and medical marijuana

In May 2008, a campaign spokesman for presidential candidate Obama told the San Francisco Chronicle that he would end DEA raids on medical marijuana suppliers in states with their own laws.[68] President Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, said in March 2009 that the DEA would only raid medical marijuana suppliers which violated both state and federal laws.[69] However, by April 2012, the Obama administration was exceeding the Bush administration's number of raids on medical marijuana, including a high-profile raid of Oaksterdam University.[70] Legislators from five states sent an open letter to the Obama administration urging them to stop interfering with state law-abiding marijuana dispensaries.[71]

Civil liberties

Obama voted in favor of the 2006 version of the USA PATRIOT Act.[72] He voted against the Military Commissions Act of 2006[73] and later voted to restore habeas corpus to those detained by the U.S. (which had been stripped by the Military Commissions Act).[72] He has advocated closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, but has not supported two specific bills that would have done so.[74] Obama still opposes the use of torture[75] and used to oppose warrantless domestic wiretaps by the U.S.[76] He voted against the Flag Desecration Amendment in 2006, arguing that flag burning didn't justify a constitutional amendment, but said that he would support a law banning flag burning on federal property.[77] As of August 8, 2008, the ACLU has given Obama a score of 80% on civil liberty issues for the 110th Congress U.S. Senate.[78]


As noted above, Obama voted to reauthorize the USA PATRIOT Act, which extended the Act, but with some amendments. Such amendments would clarify the rights of an individual who has received FISA orders to challenge nondisclosure requirements and to refuse disclosure of the name of their attorney.

He voted against extending the USA PATRIOT Act's Wiretap Provision on March 1, 2006. This bill would give the FBI the authority to conduct "roving wiretaps" and access to business records. Voting against this bill would prolong the debate, keeping the USA PATRIOT Act provisional whereas voting for this bill would extend the USA PATRIOT Act as permanent.[79]

Warrantless wiretaps

Obama had previously opposed legislation that granted legal immunity for telecommunications companies that helped the Bush administration to conduct wiretaps without warrants but later voted in favor of a compromise bill that included such provisions.[80]

Internet regulation

On November 10, 2014, President Obama recommended the Federal Communications Commission reclassify broadband Internet service as a telecommunications service in order to preserve net neutrality.[81][82]

Parental responsibility

During a February 28, 2008 speech in Beaumont, Texas, Obama said, "It's not good enough for you to say to your child, 'Do good in school,' and then when that child comes home, you got the TV set on, you got the radio on, you don't check their homework, there is not a book in the house, you've got the video game playing... So turn off the TV set, put the video game away. Buy a little desk or put that child by the kitchen table. Watch them do their homework. If they don't know how to do it, give them help. If you don't know how to do it, call the teacher. Make them go to bed at a reasonable time. Keep them off the streets. Give 'em some breakfast... I also know that if folks letting our children drink eight sodas a day, which some parents do, or, you know, eat a bag of potato chips for lunch, or Popeyes for breakfast [...] You can't do that. Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school."[83] According to the White House website: "The President has also proposed an historic investment in providing home visits to low-income, first-time parents by trained professionals. The President and First Lady are also committed to ensuring that children have nutritious meals to eat at home and at school, so that they grow up healthy and strong."[84]

Criteria for selecting judges

On October 15, 2008, during the third and final presidential debate, Obama said, "I will look for those judges who have an outstanding judicial record, who have the intellect, and who hopefully have a sense of what real-world folks are going through."[85] According to MSNBC, on July 17, 2007, Obama said, "We need somebody who's got the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it's like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it's like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old. And that's the criteria by which I'm going to be selecting my judges."[86] However, he stated at the final debate that "the most important thing in any judge is their capacity to provide fairness and justice to the American people."[85]

District of Columbia voting rights

Residents of Washington, D.C., do not have voting representation in Congress, as residents of states do, under the United States Constitution.[87] Instead, Washington currently elects a non-voting delegate to the United States House of Representatives and has no representation in the United States Senate.

Obama supports "full representation in Congress" for residents of the District of Columbia.[88] As a Senator, Obama co-sponsored the failed Voting Rights Act of 2007, which would have granted the District of Columbia full voting representation in the House.[89]


Obama has encouraged Democrats to reach out to evangelicals and other church-going people, saying, "if we truly hope to speak to people where they’re at – to communicate our hopes and values in a way that’s relevant to their own – we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse."[90][91] He supports separation of church and state and contends that: "I also think that we are under obligation in public life to translate our religious values into moral terms that all people can share, including those who are not believers. And that is how our democracy’s functioning, will continue to function. That’s what the founding fathers intended."[92] In July 2008, Obama said that if elected president he would expand the delivery of social services through churches and other religious organizations, vowing to achieve what he said President Bush had fallen short on.[93] His 2008 campaign web site contains his Faith Statement.

Gun policy

As a state legislator in Illinois, Obama supported banning the sale or transfer of all forms of semi-automatic firearms, increasing state restrictions on the purchase and possession of firearms and requiring manufacturers to provide child-safety locks with firearms.[94]

In 1996, during Obama's run for the Illinois State Senate, he was surveyed by a Chicago nonprofit, the Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI) about criminal justice and other issues. Obama's questionnaire showed that he supported a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns. Subsequently, Obama denied that his writing was on the document and said that he never favored a ban on the sale and possession of handguns.[95][96][97] In 1999, he urged prohibiting the operation of any gun store within five miles of a school or park, which according to gun-rights advocates would eliminate gun stores from most of the inhabited portion of the United States.[98] He sponsored a bill in 2000 limiting handgun purchases to one per month.

As state senator, he voted against a 2004 measure that allowed self-defense as an affirmative defense for those charged with violating local laws making it otherwise unlawful for such persons to possess firearms.[99] He also voted against allowing persons who had obtained domestic violence protective orders to carry handguns for their protection.[98]

From 1994 through 2002, Obama was a board member of the Joyce Foundation, which amongst other non-gun related activities provides funds for gun control organizations in the United States.[100][101]

While in the U.S. Senate, Obama has supported several gun control measures, including restricting the purchase of firearms at gun shows and the reauthorization of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.[102] Obama voted against legislation protecting firearm manufacturers from certain liability suits, which gun-rights advocates say are designed to bankrupt the firearms industry.[95] Obama did vote in favor of the 2006 Vitter Amendment to prohibit the confiscation of lawful firearms during an emergency or major disaster, which passed 84–16.[103]

During a February 15, 2008, press conference, Obama stated, "I think there is an individual right to bear arms, but it's subject to commonsense regulation."[citation needed] Obama has also stated his opposition to allowing citizens to carry concealed firearms[104] and supports a national law outlawing the practice,[105][106] saying on Chicago Public Radio in 2004, "I continue to support a ban on concealed carry laws".[107]

Obama initially voiced support of Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban and said that it was constitutional.[108] Following the Supreme Court decision that the ban was unconstitutional, he revised his position in support of the decision overturning the law, saying, "Today's decision reinforces that if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe."[109] He also said, in response to the ruling, "I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms... The Supreme Court has now endorsed that view."[110]

After being elected as President, Obama announced that he favors measures that respect Second Amendment rights, while at the same time keeping guns away from children and criminals. He further stated that he supports banning private transfers of firearms at gun shows (referred to as "closing the gun show loophole"), "making guns in this country childproof", and permanently reinstating the expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban.[111]

The Obama administration had changed the stance of the United States regarding the proposed United Nations treaty on trade in small arms from strong opposition to support for the treaty if it is passed by "consensus."[112] According to recent deliberations regarding the treaty, signatory countries would be required to adopt "international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms" in order "to prevent the diversion of conventional arms from the legal market into the illicit market."[113] Despite popular claims to the contrary, the treaty would not restrict U.S. citizens' Second Amendment rights for various reasons.[114] Most notably, a specific provision in the preamble acknowledges "the right of States to regulate internal transfers of arms and national ownership, including through national constitutional protections on private ownership, exclusively within their territory."[115]

On January 16, 2013, one month after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, President Obama outlined a series of sweeping gun control proposals, urging Congress to reintroduce an expired ban on "military-style" assault weapons, such as those used in several recent mass shootings, impose limits on ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, introduce background checks on all gun sales, pass a ban on possession and sale of armor-piercing bullets, introduce harsher penalties for gun-traffickers, especially unlicensed dealers who buy arms for criminals and approving the appointment of the head of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for the first time since 2006.[116]

Death penalty

Obama has said that the death penalty is used too frequently and inconsistently. However, he favors it for cases in which "the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage."[117] Speaking as a state senator about the Illinois legislature's constant additions to the list of factors that render a defendant eligible for the death penalty, Obama said, "We certainly don't think that we should [...] have this laundry list that does not make any distinctions between the run-of-the-mill armed robbery that results in death and systematic killings by a terrorist organization. And I think essentially what the reduction of aggravating factors does is, it says, 'Here's a narrower set of crimes that we think potentially at least could deserve the death penalty.'"[118] In his own words, "While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime; I believe there are some crimes – mass murder, the rape and murder of a child – so heinous that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment. On the other hand, the way capital cases were tried in Illinois at the time was so rife with error, questionable police tactics, racial bias, and shoddy lawyering, that 13 death row inmates had been exonerated."[119]

On June 25, 2008, Obama condemned United States Supreme Court decision Kennedy v. Louisiana, which outlawed the death penalty for a child rapist when the victim was not killed. He said that states have the right to consider capital punishment, but cited concern about the possibility of unfairness in some sentences.[120]

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