Wednesday, May 09, 2012

At long last, President Obama comes out in support of same-sex marriage

Earlier today, as you know by now if you pay even the remotest attention to what's going on, President Obama finally came out in support of same-sex marriage:

President Obama today announced that he now supports same-sex marriage, reversing his longstanding opposition amid growing pressure from the Democratic base and even his own vice president.

In an interview with ABC News' Robin Roberts, the president described his thought process as an "evolution" that led him to this decision, based on conversations with his staff members, openly gay and lesbian service members, and his wife and daughters.

"I have to tell you that 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," Obama told Roberts in an interview to appear on ABC's "Good Morning America" Thursday.

But of course it hasn't really been an evolution. Pre-President Obama openly supported same-sex marriage. He only began to hedge and waffle when it was politically inexpedient for him to express what many of us assumed was still his personal view. And many of us have been frustrated with him over gay rights these past three and a half years. Personally, it's not that I expected him to be a great champion of gay rights, including marriage equality, just as I never expected him to be the bringer of progressive change he made himself out to be during the '08 campaign. He's an establishmentarian, a centrist, a pragmatist. It's not just in him, off the campaign trail, to be anything else.

But surely he could have done more, pushed earlier and harder for DADT repeal, advocated marriage equality before it became the popular thing to do. It's not that he didn't do anything -- he called for the repeal of the insidious Defense of Marriage Act, he banned hospital visitation discrimination against gays and lesbians, and he issued a memorandum "directing all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons." All in all, I suppose, he's been a solid, sincere advocate for gay rights, and certainly a welcome change from previous White House occupants.

But all along there's been his silly position, likely more political than personal, on same-sex marriage. His views were supposedly been "evolving," whatever that meant (one suspects it was a lame excuse), and, indeed, as late as October of last year he said he was "still working" on it. This was inexcusably ridiculous. Basically, he just didn't want to come out yet. The timing wasn't right. Politically speaking.

In a way, one can understand his concerns. Obama isn't a prophet, he's a politician, and as such he must play close attention to public opinion, particularly in such a divided country with the Republican opposition out to destroy him at every turn. According to Gallup, a majority of Americans supports same-sex marriage, but that's only been the case the past two years. Previously, the other side was ahead. In '08 and '09, it was way ahead. Even if he personally supported it, it made sense for him to try to avoid the issue, allowing it to play out at the state level. (I'm not excusing him, just explaining the obvious rationale.) With his focus on issues like health care and the economy, not to mention the challenges of foreign and military policy, why hand the Republicans what appeared at the time to be a winning issue for them?

This may not be convincing, but at least one prominent gay figure is providing some much-needed cover today: Barney Frank, who said, "I understand why a president facing a national election took some time in making this decision." (As a long-time politician himself, Frank surely understands the compromises one must make as a politician, including with oneself.)

While I do not withhold my criticism of the president's hedging and waffling in light of his statement today, I am for the most part willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. On this, I tend to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes:

I know what the polls show, and I know he was pushed into it, but I still credit the president with doing the right thing. So much of this process reminds me of Lincoln weighing emancipation, even as he knew, in his heart, that slavery was a sin.

Moreover, regardless of the push, I think this is really heartening timing after North Carolina, where a ban on gay marriage and civil unions triumphed by some 20 points.

Well, okay, I won't go so far as to say that Obama has been Lincolnian on this issue, but of course Lincoln himself wasn't quite the determined anti-slavery advocate he is made out to be in American mythology.

And simply, whether he liked it or not, whether it was politically convenient or not, the time had come -- what with Vice President Biden's comments over the weekend (which presumably he made on his own, though it's possible there was some coordination going on, with him floating the position before the president needed to embrace it himself) and the appalling Amendment One result in North Carolina yesterday. Oh, and with the need to do some serious fundraising -- and with the need to start rallying the base (particularly on a now-winning issue like this one), as Steve Clemons explains:

Many political handicappers won't be able to resist criticizing Obama for picking a fight in the culture war terrain that evangelical-strumming, Karl Rove-types have been trying to tease out for years. But President Obama is not prone to emotional leaps of faith and knee jerk shifts in policy. Their polls must show that the nation is ready to have this fight -- that most independents and Democrats think same-sex marriage should be a civil right.

With the enthusiasm of liberals and progressives for the president's reelection seeming somewhat wilted when compared to the Obama juggernaut of 2008, gay marriage now may be one of the big meta-issues of the time that isn't only about gays -- but is part of a package of progressive "wants," such action on climate change, environmental protection, defending a woman's right to make her own choices about birth and abortion, and more.

By supporting gay marriage, Obama is giving his crowd, his base, something to go to the streets to fight for. And to the cynics on the political right who think that Obama loses in a head on culture war, he is saying "Bring it On" -- not only because he thinks that supporting gay marriage is the right thing to do, but because it may now be very smart politics.

I agree. Very smart. And what this now does for the president is allow him to blend principle and popularity. Clemons again:

President Obama has now shattered any doubt about the administration's commitment to achieving fully equal civil rights for the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) community. No shades of gray.  No politically sculpted safe place for the president to endorse same sex civil unions over marriages. No separate but equal. None of that any more.

What the president finally did today is brave. Others around the country have beaten him to the position. At this past year's Human Rights Campaign dinner, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's full-throated, resounding embrace of and support for gay marriage made President Obama's comments supporting the rights of gays (but not marriage) seem thin and weak-kneed. But Bloomberg is not behind the Oval Office desk -- and does not have to win presidential contests in North Carolina.

Brave, yes, in a way, but also, as always, pragmatic. Chris Cillizza calls it a "calculated gamble," while Ronald Browstein suggests:

[H]is decision also reflects a hard-headed acknowledgement of the changing nature of the Democratic electoral coalition. Indeed, historians may someday view Obama's announcement Wednesday as a milestone in the evolution of his party's political strategy, because it shows the president and his campaign team are increasingly comfortable responding to the actual coalition that elects Democrats today -- not the one that many in the party remember from their youth.

Obama's senior advisers see the announcement as essentially a political wash, although polls now consistently show more Americans support than oppose gay marriage. In its latest national measure, the Pew Research Center found in April that a 47 percent to 43 percent plurality of Americans back same-sex marriage. Other recent national surveys, including those by Gallup and the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, have found majority or plurality support for the idea.

Obama's announcement might not significantly change the overall level of his 2012 support, especially in an election where economic issues will dominate. But the announcement may reflect the Obama camp's thinking about the likely composition of his support. It shows the president, however reluctantly, formulating an agenda that implicitly acknowledges the party is unlikely to recreate the support it attracted from the white working-class and senior voters who anchored Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition. Instead, the announcement shows him reaching out to mobilize the new pillars of the Democratic electorate, particularly younger people and socially liberal white collar whites.

You get a sense that the other side, at least the few sensible minds left over there, understand what's going on and don't like it one bit. Sure, there's the predictable knee-jerk flailing about from the various theocratic or otherwise social conservative elements on the right, from religious leaders and politicos and even from the likes of the oft-married Rush Limbaugh and the other usual suspects of movement conservatism, fearmongering about Obama supposedly waging war on marriage, but Romney's clear discomfort when confronted with the issue today shows just how worried some Republicans are now that Obama has taken a firm stand on a popular issue, including with broad support from independents and others Romney needs if he hopes to win in November, an issue that interferes with Romney's only real hope of winning, namely, the false narrative that blames Obama for all of America's economic ills.

Yes, Romney reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage (he was once rather more supportive of gay rights, you may recall, back in his Massachusetts days, but of course he's driven by shameless political opportunism as much as anyone), as well as civil unions, but he generally preferred to avoid the issue today. He's got to keep sucking up to his party's right-wing base, of course, but he can only win in November if he pulls in the independents as well. Siding with bigotry isn't going to help him in that regard.

There is much more to be said on this issue, and on yesterday's developments, and we'll have more posts to come (stay tuned!), but for now, even acknowledging all the political calculation at work, I must applaud Obama for finally coming out in support of same-sex marrage. He may not deserve three cheers, but let's at least give him two. (Or maybe one and a half. Sadly, he also said it's a state matter, a right-wing position to take. If it's fundamental, if it's a right, if it's really about justice and equality, it must be national, if not universal. And he, as president, must push for it, not abdicate responsibility.)

After much "evolving" and "working" on it, he has finally made his position perfectly clear. Now we need to hold him to it.

There are no excuses going forward.

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