President Obama’s Record on DC Statehood Is Mixed

Obama says he supports statehood, a claim his actions haven’t always backed up.
Photograph by Flickr user Ted Eytan.
Photograph by Flickr user Ted Eytan.

President Obama pleased many District residents today by publicly stating his support for statehood for the nation’s capital.

“I’m in DC, so I’m for it,” Obama, an Illinois resident who’s worked in Washington for the past decade, said Monday during an event at the Walker-Jones Education Campus in Northwest. “Folks in DC pay taxes like everybody else. They contribute to the overall well-being of the country like everybody else. There has been a long movement to get DC statehood, and I’ve been for it for quite some time.”

That’s an encouraging statement, but Obama’s record as President isn’t exactly one that shows longtime support for the District’s goal of self-determination. Obama has been rather squishy on the topic over the years, famously trading away DC in 2011 to get a budget deal with House Speaker John Boehner, who insisted on banning the city from funding abortions for low-income women. The president’s concession—“John, I will give you DC abortion.”—is a sore memory for many District residents.

Obama has made many statements since then in support of DC’s goals of budget autonomy and voting seats in Congress, including last week when he threatened to veto a House-passed appropriations bill that contains an amendment aimed at canceling the city’s newly enacted marijuana decriminalization law. The White House also slapped District-issued “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousines last year. But some statehood activists still feel Obama has fallen short.

“Those are both parts of statehood but not the whole thing,” says Josh Burch, who runs a group called Neighbors United for DC Statehood. “Statehood is the only thing that protects us from our enemies and our friends. Barack Obama is our friend, but he’s willing to sell us out.”

In fairness to the President, Burch says there are plenty of members of Congress who voice support for DC statehood but still vote for measures that limit the city’s autonomy, such as Democratic Representatives Jared Polis and Timothy Walz, who cosponsored a statehood bill but also voted last week for an amendment that seeks to overturn local gun laws.

“This problem is not unique to Barack Obama,” Burch says. “It’s something our entire national leadership is willing to be a party to.” Still, Burch says he’s happy to hear the President’s newly vocal support statehood, even if his record is lacking.

One possible reason Obama’s affinity for DC is growing: He might stick around town for a few years after his second term ends so his younger daughter, Sasha, can finish up high school here, as he told ABC News last fall.

“It’ll personalize him to the city,” Burch says. “We’re not just a city with good sandwich joints. Talk is sweet, action is better, and thus far his actions haven’t been that supportive of us.”

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed

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