President Obama's historic decision to "affirm" his "personal belief" that gays should be allowed to marry could well have be the result of a cold political calculation: Whatever risk there was in making the announcement now is nowhere near as damaging as continuing to look like a coward by insisting that Obama's beliefs were still "evolving."
But hey, so what? An American president is on record supporting marriage equality, defining it as an issue of fairness.
Not only that, the "Obama for America" campaign — http://www.barackobama.com — followed up the announcement with an email re-stating current administration policy that "where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them." The Obama Justice Department announced several months ago that it no longer would defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies legal recognition for same-sex marriages.
The campaign email also made clear that Obama is done running from the issue and now is running on it: it included an appeal to supporters to "stand with the president." (When you click on the button to do so, you are taken immediately to a request for donations.)
When the history of this era is written, it will be of little note that Obama's announcement came at what was described as a "hastily arranged interview" with ABC News. Or that it followed a cringe-worthy two days of almost-comic attempts at damage control following Vice President Joe Biden's statement that he is "absolutely comfortable with men marrying men, women marrying women." A day later, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the same thing. (Possibly the most relieved person in Washington today is White House spokesman Jay Carney, who had to do an awkward tap dance around Obama's "personal views" at a succession of press briefings.)
If a gaffe is a politician telling some obvious truth, this was a Biden classic – although some pundits put forward the ludicrous notion that Biden's statement was a convenient way for Obama to signal his support for gay marriage without having to actually say it himself. Whatever the real story, Obama owes his voluble running mate a debt of gratitude for providing the push to make him to finally align his current statements with the beliefs that he himself expressed as far back as 1996.
A Gallup Poll released this week finds that, while support for legalizing same-sex marriage has grown substantially in recent years, the trajectory has not been straight up, and the nation remains split on the issue, with 50 percent supporting it — down from 53 percent last year — and 48 percent opposed. A lot of that opposition is located in swing states like Pennsylvania. And while nine states have legalized gay marriage, 31 others have enacted state constitutional amendments that prohibit it, the most recent was Tuesday in North Carolina.
So President Obama may pay a political price for his support of equality, although Americans have shown in the past that they tend to favor politicians who stick to their principles, even if they disagree with them.
At the same time, it's doubly important for those who support marriage equality to show their support for Obama's decision, no matter what its motivation. n