After years of insisting that he was personally opposed to gay marriage, but his views were “evolving,” Barack Obama suddenly declared that his evolution was complete. In an interview to be broadcast in full on ABC’s Good Morning America on Thursday, the President said:
“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.”
The military is “fighting on his behalf?” At least the psychic trauma from last night’s primaries hasn’t damaged his ego. It’s also great how he channels Gary Cole from Office Space. He’s going to “go ahead” and fill out that gay marriage TPS report now.
Even gay marriage supporters know this is an act of pure political opportunism on Obama’s part, not a bold statement of principle. The New York Times reported via Twitter that “some Obama advisers were divided on the decision to support same-sex marriage, but concluded his brand has been damaged enough by hedging.” Well, if there’s one true conviction Obama holds, it’s his firm stance against damage to his brand.
He also decided to go ahead and affirm that states should be able to make marriage laws on their own, a “principle” he’s not likely to “evolve” on other issues… like, say, voter ID laws, education, or health care. For that matter, isn’t this the President who asserted raw executive power to declare the Defense of Marriage Act – a law that closely tracks with his stated current position – a dead letter? Or has that “evolved” too, and now Obama will begin enforcing DOMA?
For an ostensibly recent convert to the cause, Obama is adept at using the loaded language of the gay marriage debate:
“It’s interesting, some of this is also generational,” the president continued. “You know when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same-sex equality or, you know, sexual orientation, that they believe in equality. They are much more comfortable with it.”
So if you support the millennia-old definition of marriage, you don’t “believe in equality.” The old fuddy-duddies who keep voting to protect marriage just aren’t as “comfortable” with equality as their wise children. How, exactly, is it moral for Obama to say that despite his newfound personal convictions, he’s got no problem with states like North Carolina voting against “equality?” Why wasn’t Barack Obama “comfortable” with “equality” in 2008?
We also get to enjoy a lesson in theology from Pastor Obama, who also recently instructed the Catholic Church on the absurdity of their objections to contraceptives and abortifacients, and has offered a number of sermons from Christ the Tax Collector:
“This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, 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.”
At least the Obama translation of the Bible is short and easy to remember: Golden Rule, render unto Caesar, a couple of Commandments, and that’s about it. What other laws does he think the Golden Rule invalidates? Progressive taxation?
Parsing the President’s words is entertaining, but ultimately there’s no secret about the crass political calculation being made here. The Obama 2012 campaign has little to offer Middle America. On the other hand, pressure from big money donors was mounting for Obama to complete that “evolution” to gay marriage pronto. The youth vote is being assiduously courted. The President’s previous quantum non-position had simply become untenable.
Gay marriage proponents will, generally speaking, make their peace with Obama’s naked pander, because the bully pulpit of the presidency is a huge asset. It’s less clear that states like North Carolina, or the 29 others which have affirmed marriage as the union of one man and one woman, will let him wiggle out through the “state’s rights” escape hatch. His liberal base’s blind fury at North Carolina probably won’t dissipate just because they won the coveted Presidential seal of personal-conviction approval, either. The President will be expected to level some degree of direct criticism at North Carolina voters, no later than the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this September. The castigated voters might not take it well.
There might also be fallout in other swing states, like Florida and Ohio. The electoral effect is likely to be regional, hurting Obama in some areas, helping him in others. A glance at the electoral map suggests most of the political benefits will accrue in states where Obama was strong to begin with, while limited damage will be felt in swing states where Obama really couldn’t afford even limited damage.
The demographic effects will be mixed as well. It has long been thought that black voters, for example, are generally less than enthusiastic about gay marriage, but they’re so loyal to Obama that it won’t really matter.
Much will depend on how heated the marriage discussion becomes. For example, here’s a bit of reaction to the President’s announcement reported by ABC News:
A Democratic senator who supports Obama’s re-election as well as gay marriage told Yahoo News that the president could face “significant electoral risk” if his announcement is merely a check-the-box exercise with no follow-through.
“If the president simply makes an important commitment to equality and moves on, and does not challenge the network of people nationally, activists and others, who favor marriage equality, to speak up from now through the election, he is taking a significant electoral risk,” said the senator, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name.
It doesn’t sound as if this nameless Senator will be content with Obama checking off the “I personally support gay marriage” box and leaving it at that.
There’s also the danger of backlash, or perhaps more accurately whiplash, from people who aren’t all that passionate about the marriage issue, but find the transparency of the pander risible, or resent the shift in focus away from core economic issues. For an example of that thinking, consider the statement of former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who is a passionate defender of traditional marriage, but asserted that “every American who can’t find work, whose home us under water, or who can’t afford to fill up his gas tank, should be wondering why the president is spending even one second of his time thinking about how and to radically transform the institution of marriage. It’s a political move meant to energize his left-wing base and distract Americans from his disastrous economic policies.”
A fair number of voters will probably react as Bauer describes. The left-wing base will most likely be energized. Hollywood, which was showing a few troubling, sporadic signs of climbing from its fainting couch, will swoon over Obama again. Religious and traditional values voters will be angry. A few sincere proponents of same-sex marriage will be vocally unhappy that Obama is giving them rhetorical support without policy muscle, and challenge him to do more. Wedges will be driven into both Democrat and Republican coalitions. The political game board will be shaken up a bit, a least for a little while. When you’re in Obama’s position, that’s a defensible strategic move.
Update: the New York Times has a handy chart summarizing the politics of marriage in the swing states. All but Iowa and New Hampshire prohibit same-sex marriage, and only in Pennsylvania was it passed by any means other than ballot initiative.
Update: Here’s a video clip from Obama’s interview with ABC: