After years of insisting that he was personally opposed to gay marriage, but his views were “evolving,” Barack Obama suddenly declared last week that his evolution was complete. In an interview broadcast on ABC’s Good Morning America Thursday, the president said: “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.”
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 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.
Little to offer
The truth is, the Obama 2012 campaign has little to offer Middle America. And, pressure from big money donors was mounting for Obama to complete his “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 whether states like North Carolina, or the 29 others that have affirmed marriage as the union of one man and one woman, will let him wiggle out through the “state’s rights” escape hatch.
There might also be fallout in other swing states, like Florida and Ohio. A first-blush look at the electoral map suggests most of the political benefits will accrue in states where Obama was strong to begin with, while some damage will be felt in swing states, but where Obama really couldn’t afford even limited damage.
Much will depend on how heated the marriage discussion becomes, and the intensity of the backlash among those 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 example, consider the reaction of Gary Bauer, who is a passionate defender of traditional marriage, but asserted that “every American who can’t find work, whose home is 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, at the very least, will be shaken up for a little while, and at most, could be reset in a way that makes an emotional social issue the singular Obama decision that motivates them to vote, and vote no.