Yesterday, President Obama announced his support for marriage equality, the first time a sitting American President ever made such a declaration. Historically, presidents have not been at the vanguard of the civil rights movements of their time; Abraham Lincoln, and Lyndon Johnson are the major exceptions in American history.
The fact that Obama supports same-sex marriage was not much of a secret despite the fact that he claims this is a new position. It’s not. When first running for the Illinois state Senate back in the mid 1990’s, Obama filled out a questionnaire and averred to supporting same-sex marriage. This was natural given the district he represented, and Obama himself is very much the type who would (and most likely does) have gay friends and acquaintances in his social circle. But in 2004 when he ran for the US Senate, same-sex marriage was a very polarizing issue as the Karl Rove-led Bush campaign sailed to a second term on a wave of homophobia. As a result, supporting marriage equality was a no-go for any serious Presidential candidate in 2008.
All the while, more and more Senators, led by the late, great Ted Kennedy, voiced their support for marriage equality. Also since 2004, more states passed marriage equality laws (or civil unions bills) either through the legislature or through the courts. LGBT activists became more daring, especially once Obama was elected, and the activists felt that, for the first time ever, they had an ally in the White House.
And the truth is that Obama is an ally. The frustration that the LGBT community has had with him is somewhat unwarranted. Yes, it took nearly three-and-a-half years to get him to voice his support for marriage equality, but in those years, he has done far more for the LGBT community than any President has ever done, both big and small. Executive Orders may be within the purview of the President (and may be reversible by the next President), but no other President has used those Orders to help the LGBT community like Obama has. He kept his promise to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and most significantly, the Obama Justice Department is no longer defending the Defense of Marriage Act, saying flat-out that it is unconstitutional. The fact that such a large segment of the LGBT community refuses to recognize exactly what an ally we have is maddening at times. Trust liberals to not take yes for an answer.
Which brings us to today’s announcement, which came during an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts. From early this morning there had been rumors that Obama was going to announce his support for marriage equality, although no one could say for certain. It just felt like now was the time it was going to happen. We all expected the announcement would come in 2013, safely after the election. According to some sources, it was intended to come before the Democratic National Convention. Two things sped up the timing: (1) the passage of a horribly draconian North Carolina state constitutional amendment which severely punishes same-sex couples in that state; and (2) Joe Biden’s support for marriage equality, which he affirmed a few days ago on Meet the Press. The latter especially ratcheted up the pressure on the White House from activists who could not understand the President’s reticence.
Despite the fact that in the past two years polls have found that the majority, or at least a plurality, of the country supports marriage equality, Obama’s announcement was not a no-risk gamble. Yes, he will energize his base and his donors (particularly his very wealthy gay donors), but there are still significant risks. Perhaps the biggest problem is that Obama risks alienating a substantial portion of his most loyal base: African-Americans. As a bloc, African-Americans are very socially conservative, very church-centered, and tend to vote against gay rights. (Important note: this is speaking in generalizations. Not all African-Americans are homophobic, and many people in the LGBT community are themselves African-American. Some of the most impassioned and beautiful speeches in favor of LGBT equality have come from African-American lawmakers.) African-Americans were a large part of why Obama won so handily in 2008, and he will need their support again. Unlike Latinos who support marriage equality in roughly the same numbers as the general population, African-Americans are a stubborn holdout. Look, no Republican is going to win the African-American vote, especially against a black President, but the danger is that black voters will not turn out in significant enough numbers if they are too disenchanted with Obama.
Yet Obama has been needlessly equivocal. Even today he was equivocal, parsing out that while he personally believes in same-sex marriage, he also believes it should be left up to the states to decide. Some activists, most prominently Dan Savage, are calling him out on that. Possibly correctly. But they are also not looking beyond the words to the deeds. Obama may be saying that he wants to let the states decide, but the actions of his government undercut that sentiment, nowhere more forcefully that in the DOJ’s DOMA position. DOMA is all about state power, and the DOJ is saying that is unconstitutional. Behind the DOJ’s action is the message that marriage is a civil right that is being unfairly denied to same-sex couples. So yes, what Obama said and what he is doing are at odds, but I trust the actions. Obama’s presidency has at times been revolutionary, but only from a large picture perspective. It’s been the same with gay rights, almost a pointillist approach; each step that he takes is just another dot in what is a grand masterpiece of making the LGBT community equal.
Which leaves us with the reactions from the peanut gallery. Progressives are thrilled, pragmatists are scared, and the people who weren’t voting for Obama anyway are still not voting for him. Fox of course had the classiest reaction. Or no, I’m sorry, the opposite of class. Tackiest, perhaps?
But we can’t forget the gay Republicans, who are gnashing their teeth in agony. Obama has caused this brains to short-circuit. The head of the Log Cabin Republicans released a statement that is just baffling in its stupidity. GOProud then followed up with one of equal lunacy. The basic gist of both statements is that: (1) Obama was disrespectful toward the same-sex couples of North Carolina by making this announcement so soon after they lost their amendment battle; and (2) he is following in the footsteps of Dick Cheney in supporting marriage equality.
Arguing with GOProud and the Log Cabins is a fool’s errand. Their existence only proves that gays too can care more about money than principle. But I do want to address both parts of their argument briefly. (1) What is more disrespectful, announcing that you support marriage equality after the North Carolina defeat or that you oppose marriage equality as well as civil unions as their boy Mitt Romney did both before and after President’s announcement today? I believe the latter. (Also, Republicans are the ones responsible for the North Carolina amendment. Just saying.) (2) Dick Cheney is hardly a leader in this issue. When his influence may have done some good, like say when Bush the Younger tried to pass a constitutional amendment that would have banned all same-sex marriage in this country, he remained silent and implied that he did not support marriage equality despite the fact that his daughter is a lesbian. Obama, is the President. He is running for reelection. He is not taking the easy way out of waiting until he is out of power and then talking about marriage equality from the safety of retirement.
What Obama did today is a small step, but it is an important one. Every once in a while the arc of the moral universe does bend a little closer to justice.