Was it partly political? Of course. As Jay Rosen tweeted, “I’m old enough to understand that a president who is with you only when the polling supports it is the best you are ever going to get.”
So perhaps the most remarkable aspect of President Obama’s decision to endorse same-sex marriage was that he clearly saw it as good politics.
There are many ways of looking at this. For instance, Michael Rezendes reports in today’s Boston Globe that it may help the president with fundraising. But I think the overarching reason is that Obama’s been dragged into the most vicious culture war in a generation, and he was fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Now he’s free to play both offense and defense. His base will be as energized as the Republicans’.
(Non-political, real-world aside: This is huge! Tuesday was a great day for our country, and Obama deserves our thanks and congratulations no matter what political calculations went into this.)
Which brings me to an article I wrote for the Boston Phoenix in November 2003, shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that marriage discrimination was unconstitutional. I urged Democrats in general, and the presidential candidates in particular, to embrace the ruling. My argument was that if they didn’t, they’d be cast by the anti-marriage right as gay-marriage supporters without receiving any of the benefits of actually coming out and saying it.
I was proved correct the following year, when then-president George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in part on the strength of anti-gay-marriage measures on the ballots in a number of battleground states — all while Kerry kept professing his opposition to same-sex marriage.
We are free to speculate that Obama’s opposition to gay marriage was just as political as — or perhaps more political than — his about-face. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, who’s against same-sex marriage, tweeted yesterday, “Pro-gay marriage in 1996. Anti-gay marriage in 2004. Pro-gay marriage in 2012. When Obama evolves, he evolves!” Jacoby was referring to a questionnaire Obama once filled out when he was running for office in Illinois.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is doubling down on his opposition to same-sex marriage and even civil unions. And in characteristic Romney fashion, he is saying the matter ought to be left to the states, which contradicts his own position. As Rick Klein of ABC News tweets, “important to add that he [Romney] wants to ban it at federal level, via Constitution.”
In any event, the president is now on the right side of history, of morality and of human dignity. That it might also help him win re-election is beside the point.