There are two ways, sharply contrasting yet not mutually exclusive, that we can look at President Obama’s declaration yesterday that he now supports marriage rights for same-sex couples.
The cynical view is that, when left with no alternative, even the most self-interested politician will do the right thing.
The idealistic view is that democracy really does work, that the American people have a deep though imperfect respect for civil liberties, and that ultimately our politicians must at least try to be as good as we want our country to be, even when doing so is politically inconvenient.
Obama embodied the cynical view, yet his abrupt change of heart proves that at the end of the day, citizens determine government policy.
As a little-known candidate for the Illinois Senate, Barack Obama supported marriage rights for gay couples as early as 1996. This was the same year the issue exploded on the national stage, when Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act to deny federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
By the time Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004 (the year Massachusetts became the first state to actually allow same-sex couples to wed), he opposed same-sex marriage but supported civil unions. Obama maintained his opposition throughout his bid for the White House in 2008 and continued to do so once in office. He had a massive Democratic majority in both houses of Congress during the first two years of his term, during which time he opposed gay marriage while his administration defended DOMA. His position on the subject began “evolving” in 2010, when Republicans took back the House of Representatives and made inroads in the Senate. By last year, after a series of court defeats, the president was calling for DOMA’s repeal, but that was a nonstarter in the current Congress.
Obama clearly hoped to bury the marriage issue until after November’s voting. While much of the country has embraced marriage rights for everyone, there is still substantial resistance - especially in certain swing states that will be crucial in choosing the next president.
One of those states is North Carolina, whose voters just this week endorsed a change in their state’s constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. The Obama campaign hopes to carry the state, which is also the site of this year’s Democratic National Convention. Supporting same-sex marriage will not be helpful.
The president’s effort to “evolve” silently on this issue until after November fell apart this week when Vice President Joe Biden and a member of Obama’s cabinet, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, both said they personally support same-sex marriage. This led to demands from Obama’s core backers, many of whom support gay marriage, for him to clarify his position and contrast himself with Republican Mitt Romney, a gay-marriage opponent.
Romney probably also wishes the issue would go away, even though his campaign undoubtedly relishes the president’s discomfiture over it. Social conservatives opposed to gay marriage may not love Romney, but they also probably saw through the president’s effort to wait until after November before coming out, so to speak, on the other side. Romney wants to attack Obama’s record on federal spending and the economy rather than get mired in a social-issues quicksand that imperils both candidates with the few, but all-important, uncommitted voters.
As I have written before, this ship has sailed. Same-sex marriage exists, it is not going away, and North Carolina’s vote this week notwithstanding, state and federal rejection of it will not matter in the long run. Either the courts will continue to strike down such restrictions as unconstitutional violations of fundamental rights, or public opinion - which has been moving steadily in favor of gay marriage since the issue emerged less than 20 years ago - will ultimately make the restrictions go away. It is simply unworkable to have marriages recognized in some jurisdictions and not others.
So as Romney and others like him wait for the courts to take matters conveniently out of their hands, Obama deserves at least a little credit for finally taking the plunge. Whether he jumped off the diving board or got pushed ultimately does not matter. Now, at least, every American has a president who publicly supports his or her right to share a life with the person of their choosing.
The motives matter less than the result. In the sweep of history, Obama will be credited with having done the right thing.