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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.

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

  • A. Loikow

    It has taken President Obama quite a while to recognize that his immediate neighbors do not have the same liberty and right to self-government that he enjoys as a legal resident of the State of Illinois. That is because the District of Columbia is the only part of the United States that has been part of the nation from the beginning, where the residents had all the rights of American citizens, including the essential right to self-government upon which every other right rests, and then lost them. For over TWO CENTURIES, D.C. has effectively been a colony of the rest of the United States ruled by an unelected state and federal legislature. In other words, it is still 1775 here, but with Congress playing the role of the British Parliament. District residents pay full Federal taxes and have fought and died in every war the United States has ever been in, earning 39 Medal of Honors. Unlike other Americans, although they fought to protect the freedom and liberty of the rest of country and even that of other nations, they come home and have none.

    Currently more than 650,000 people live within the District of Columbia, more than in the states of Wyoming and Vermont. D.C. is one of the fastest growing state level jurisdictions in the country. In the 1950's, over 800,000 people lived here. In 1982, the people of D.C. held a constitutional convention, drafted and approved a state constitution and have been petitioning Congress ever since.

    The New Columbia Admission Act, H.R. 292, and its Senate companion S. 132, are currently pending in Congress. The House bill has 67 cosponsors and the Senate bill has 16. Under these bills, the size of the District would be shrunk to the Federal monumental core -- all the big white marble buildings Americans think of as their capital, including the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court, Mall, monuments, East and West Potomac Parks and the Federal headquarters along Constitution and Independence Avenues. Congress defined this area as the area of Federal interest in the D.C. "Home Rule Act" in 1974.

    Admitting the residential and commercial parts of the current District as the State of New Columbia is completely constitutional, since the Constitution only sets a maximum, not a minimum size for the Seat of Government of the United States and only requires Congress to pass a single law admitting New Columbia on equal footing with the other 50 states. Congress has already significantly shrunk the size of the District by almost 40% when it returned the City and County of Alexandria to Virginia in 1846.

    The right to self-government, or "liberty," should be the right of all Americans. It is most ironic that it is denied to the residents of the capital of the oldest democracy in the world. Ever politician who stands in front of the Lincoln Memorial or Capitol and lauds American freedom is doing so in the one place in this country where it doesn't exist. It is time that our right to self-government, which was taken from us just after Thomas Jefferson was elected President, be restored and this blot on American democracy be erased.

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