I wrote two weeks ago that same-sex marriage had turned into a test of character and leadership for President Obama. With his interview on May 9, the president passed the test, saying for the first time that he supports the right of gay and lesbian Americans to marry.
In the wake of Vice President Biden’s remarks supportive of marriage equality, the continued presidential equivocation had made Obama look weak and evasive. Weak because he — and his unfortunate spokesman — had to keep fudging as Democratic official after official, from governors to his own Cabinet secretaries, expressed clear support for marriage equality. Evasive because he seemed to be hiding the ball from voters, who were entitled to know what the president thinks “before” they decide on a second term. And the longer Obama waited, the worse he looked. The president’s first stall tactic, that he was “evolving” on the issue, didn’t cut it anymore.
Granted, the president had already taken huge — indeed, brave — steps in support of gay rights. He ended “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which the last Democratic president implemented. He instructed his Justice Department to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which the last Democratic president signed. And in comparison to Mitt Romney on gay rights, there is no comparison. Romney supports a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage. Obama was tiptoeing his way toward support of marriage equality. But the tiptoeing had become the problem — a bigger problem, in fact, than would be created by Obama’s expressing support for same-sex marriage now, even with the election looming.
The president’s political advisers had been reluctant to have him take the plunge on gay marriage for fear of offending key voters. The concern was not so much African-Americans, who tend to oppose same-sex marriage, as white working-class voters in swing states such as North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio. But whether that earlier political calculus was correct, in a post-Biden-comment world, the better strategy was to get it over with, take the hit with some voters and reap the benefits of coming out in support of marriage equality.
As Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, told me before the president’s statement, “The kind of back and forth we’ve seen over the last few days illustrates why it’s important that the president be forthright in his support for the freedom to marry rather than risk seeming inauthentic, and disappointing those who want to be with him, while doing nothing to satisfy those he’s never going to get anyway.”
The best strategy would have been to do so earlier, when the move would not look as if Obama had been pushed into it. Still, the reason to take the hit now was that the issue wasn’t going away, as the cruel and unusual punishment that spokesman Jay Carney suffered during the May 7 White House briefing demonstrated. The same questions that Carney had to dodge would have come up repeatedly until November — and the president himself was going to be on the receiving end.
Then there was the looming debate over whether a marriage equality plank should be in the Democratic platform. And presidential debates: What would Obama have said say when he was, inevitably, asked to state his views? Not going to make news for you tonight?
There remain questions about the scope of the president’s support. For example, he was not asked about whether he believes gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry. Rather, according to ABC News, Obama said the issue should be left to the states.
But for those of us who believe in the right of gays and lesbians to marry, Wednesday, May 9 ,was a day for celebrating, not word-parsing. In 2016, and in elections to come, it will not be big news for a president, or a presidential candidate, to support same-sex marriage. And that will be the best news of all.