Most of the left considered the election of an African-American president to be an historic moment back in 2008. Since that time, most probably have felt various senses of frustration and disappointment in the lackluster and largely cautious and centrist presidency of Barack Obama.
However, this week President Obama undoubtedly reminded many on the left of the still unfulfilled promise of his presidency, which is why many will undoubtedly hold their nose, given no other real choice, and vote to reelect the man.
In a very real sense, one of the few areas of true progress under President Obama has been in the area of gay rights, whether it was the refusal to defend the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, pushing for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Still, I think for those on the left, the moment when President Obama told Robin Robert, “I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married,” it was one of those few electric moments in our lifetime.
The New York Times called it “a wrenching personal transformation on the issue.”
Perhaps it was. It certainly marks an interesting swing in the issue, just a day after North Carolina voted to ban same sex marriage, because previously even so-called liberal national Democratic figures had been reluctant to embrace the issue of same-sex marriage, even if many personally supported it.
According to the New York Times, “Advisers say now that Mr. Obama had intended since early this year to define his position sometime before Democrats nominate him for re-election in September.”
On the other hand, “Yet many of the president’s allies believed he would not do so, trusting instead in his strong support from gay voters for having ended a ban on openly gay people in the military and disavowing a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.”
Some believe it was Vice President Joe Biden that “all but forced the president’s hand by embracing the idea of same-sex unions in a Sunday talk show interview.”
“I had hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” Mr. Obama said. “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word marriage was something that invokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs.”
“The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule – you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated,” he said. “And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president.”
“It grew directly out of this difference in visions,” President Obama said. “Are we a country that includes everybody and gives everybody a shot and treats everybody fairly, and is that going to make us stronger? Are we welcoming to immigrants? Are we welcoming to people who aren’t like us? Does that make us stronger? I believe it does. So that’s what’s at stake.”
The historic significance of this move cannot be understated.
I have often remarked on the momentum on this issue, noting the strong youth support of it. However, the public as a whole is still mixed, as exhibited by the polling that was done pre-announcement. In an election year, you would have thought that the President would be cautious, fearful of disrupting what appeared to be momentum in swing states toward his reelection.
The fact that he did this before his election and not after is significant.
The administration is quick to note this is a symbolic move – it is not that they are seeking to pass legislation. Others note that the “election still is all but certain to turn on the economy.”
However, the New York Times notes, “Public support for same-sex marriage is growing at a pace that surprises even pollsters as older generations of voters who tend to be strongly opposed are supplanted by younger ones who are just as strongly in favor.”
Still, as the Times points out: “Yet opponents include white working-class voters, among whom Mr. Obama has long had weak support, and many African-Americans, led by influential ministers in their churches, whose support is critical to Mr. Obama in swing states like Virginia and North Carolina.”
That the President would embrace this issue now shows perhaps a move away from strict political calculations by the President and, more importantly, ends the cautious dance that Democratic leaders have taken on this issue. President Obama paves the way for the national Democratic Party to embrace this issue which will likely force older liberal voters – currently somewhat reluctant – to embrace this issue.
The polling here is interesting. A USA Today/Gallup Poll shows that the public is split almost down the middle with 51% approving and 45% disapproving.
60% of the public indicates that this shift will have no bearing on their vote, but for the 40% that do think it will impact their vote, the poll shows by a 2-1 margin (26-13) voters say it will make them less likely to vote.
However, drilling down further, “More supporters of likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney feel more strongly about this issue than do base supporters of Obama.”
President Obama’s advisors have argued that this was not a political decision; usually when an advisor says that, you can bet it is precisely a political decision. In this case, we tend to believe him because we do not see a clear advantage. As we noted previously, the President probably had done enough for the LGBT community that he did not have to embrace their signature issue.
That makes this moment all the more historic. Generational demographics suggest this is an idea whose time will come. The President’s move simply hastens that moment.
—David M. Greenwald reporting