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Has Obama Already Failed Us on HIV/AIDS? (And Will Yelling Make It Better?)

By Myles Helfand

November 5, 2010

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Steadfast Obama supporters in the HIV/AIDS community have reached the point at which the honey has long since dripped off the moon, and they're beginning to see the craters that are left behind. For activists such as Hofmann, that's a bitter truth to acknowledge -- and the desire is still strong to give the man the benefit of the doubt. But for King, there never was a benefit of the doubt to begin with. Call him a pragmatist or a cynic, but for him, it's all about the delivery -- and thus far, most in the HIV/AIDS community can agree that Obama's delivery has largely been in words rather than dollars.

The next two years, of course, will be critical. We have a national HIV/AIDS strategy, but it has yet to be implemented -- and doing so will take a tremendous amount of money during a time when political pressure will likely squeeze health budgets rather than expand them. We've seen a trickle of relief for severely hard-hit federal aid efforts such as the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, but a far greater flow of funds will be needed to ensure that those efforts succeed (or at least don't fail completely).

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The dilemma for the HIV/AIDS community is: How much should President Obama be taken to task? Is it wrong to shout at a man who seems sympathetic to our cause, or is shouting all the more necessary because sympathy isn't enough? Is it better to wait on the sidelines and pressure politicians quietly, given the more overarching issues they need to deal with in a time of great national strife? Or is now exactly the time when pressure needs to be more vocal, because otherwise "smaller" issues such as HIV/AIDS will be buried or ignored? How much of our perceived lack of progress on HIV/AIDS issues in the U.S. is President Obama's fault, and how much of it is our own fault for expecting more of him than he could realistically hope (or, in many cases, explicitly promised) to deliver in the first two years of his presidency?

I don't pretend to have answers to these questions. On the one hand, I share Hofmann's instinct to give this president some more slack, as well as her sentiment that it is inappropriate to shout when the guy is giving a speech at a reception he specifically invited HIV/AIDS advocates to attend (as was the case in July, when King yelled out while Obama spoke about the newly unveiled National HIV/AIDS Strategy). But I also agree with King that good things don't magically come to those who sit quietly and wait their turn, and I share that increasingly oppressive feeling that nothing's really going to get done about the domestic epidemic unless a lot more people start screaming.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was that screaming that made a difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS -- a true, fundamental difference, a difference that has saved countless lives. But here's the thing. In the 1980s and early 1990s, there was no Internet. Cable news was (relatively speaking) in its infancy. There was no Glenn Beck, no Keith Olbermann, no Tea Party movement. Screaming meant more. Today, on television, on the radio and on the Web, it feels as if everyone is screaming. About everything. So much so that it's becoming difficult to make out any of the voices.

As Jon Stewart said at his D.C. rally last month, "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing." Putting aside how creepy it is to be quoting words of wisdom from a comedian who loves to make NAMBLA jokes, the fact is that activism itself is not what it was 20 years ago. And I'm not sure we've figured out a way to make it effective in a cynical, media-saturated, anger-touting age. Until we solve that puzzle, the debate between dedicated HIV/AIDS activists such as Hofmann and King may be moot. Because even though both of them believe so deeply and so passionately in the same cause, their two divergent approaches to activism may both ultimately be lost in the din.

Myles Helfand is the editorial director of TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

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See Also
Advocates Urge Obama to Address HIV in the U.S.
President Obama and HIV/AIDS
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