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November 21, 2014

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Another leadership moment passing Obama by

When Joe Biden came out last year in favor of gay marriage, President Barack Obama, evidently furious at being upstaged, said Biden “probably got out a little bit over his skis, but out of a generosity of spirit.”

As his second term hurtles downhill, it’s high time the president showed a little bit of that generosity of spirit himself. Hope and change. An actual pulse. Something.

President Obama should own the initiative to change the scandalous way the military handles cases of sexual abuse. But instead of leading, the president — with characteristic detachment — is letting the battle get fought out in the Senate.

This is a perfect example of how the reality of the Obama presidency has deviated so much from expectations within his own party, and why progressives are stunned as they watch the wasted opportunities for change pile up.

Instead of the president pushing Congress to change a paradigm that has meant assault victims by the hundreds have been driven from the service with bogus psychological evaluations while perpetrators have been protected by their commanding officers, he has stayed mute on the sidelines and let the battle against the brass be led by the courageous and determined Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

All she has done is what Obama doesn’t do: the dirty day-to-day work of making change, lobbying every one of her colleagues, and building an impressive bipartisan coalition in favor of taking these cases out of the chain of command and putting them in the hands of professional prosecutors.

Meanwhile, Obama’s surrogates in the bureaucracy, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have fought Gillibrand at every turn.

Now, that opposition has manifested itself in the written testimony of Jo Ann Rooney, Obama’s nominee to be undersecretary of the Navy.

Rooney, testifying in support of her nomination, wrote that judge advocates outside the chain of command would look at assault cases “through a different lens than a military commander. ... I believe the impact would be decisions based on evidence rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline.”

Decisions about prosecution based on the evidence? Perish the thought!

Rooney later tried to explain her testimony by saying she didn’t mean a commander should ignore evidence but that commanders had additional issues to consider beyond the evidence.

That, predictably, did not help.

Meanwhile, one commitment at a time, Gillibrand has added to the coalition of senators supporting her Military Justice Improvement Act while bucking the brass and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. At last count, she has 47 senators who have publicly announced their support.

What would it take to get majority Senate support for her bill? Two things. Pressure from the grass roots — more senators hearing from their constituents on the issue — and pressure from the White House.

It’s not too late for the president to use both his bully pulpit and his personal capital on this. What does he have to lose? He’s bucked his military leaders before when it suited him. He’s not running for re-election. He has a perfect opportunity to get something significant accomplished.

It’s time the commander in chief acted like one.

Otherwise, Vice President Biden — who has been unfortunately marginalized in the second act of Obama’s presidency — may need to go skiing again.

David McCumber is chief of the Hearst Newspapers Washington Bureau.

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