[First posted on skepolitical.com on 5/11/12)
A truly significant cultural event occurred this week in America: our President declared his belief that homosexual couples should be allowed to marry. As Glenn Greenwald points out in an Op-Ed in the Guardian, this was unthinkable twenty or thirty years ago, when homosexuality was still punishable by death in some states. That the mainstream American position on gay rights has evolved so significantly is a genuine inspiration to those of us who sometimes despair at the seemingly impossible task of pushing America towards better ethical leadership and policy.
At the center of this historic event is our president, Barack Obama, who has benefitted from a maelstrom of positive press from the mainstream media. Barack Obama, who several years ago told us that his position on the issue was “evolving,” thus introducing a new level of insulting intellectual dishonesty. Few observers on either the left or the right could have failed to see what Obama was saying: he believed in gay marriage, but would wait to announce it until it was politically expedient. Now that he has capitalized on that moment, the press is falling right into the trap of letting him ride this wave of liberal exuberance, as if his cynical “evolution” had something to do with the truly inspiring evolution of the views of the American people.
That Obama gets to ride this wave of goodwill is made all the more frustrating due to the fact that he could have made this announcement months ago without suffering politically. In his characteristically sober style, Nate Silver points out that it is unusual for a party’s leader to be as far from the mainstream of his own party as Obama had been on this issue, concluding: “In many ways it is surprising that Mr. Obama did not adopt his new position sooner.” Even if you are the type to forgive political expedience, Obama would have done just fine if he had made this announcement several months or even a full year earlier.
By waiting an extra few months or a year to finally confess his transparent dissemblance on this issue, Obama may have gained a little extra political milage. The mainstream view today is slightly more in favor of gay marriage now than it was last year, so perhaps the celebratory atmosphere is a bit stronger on the left than it would have been last year and the backlash from the right may be weaker. Also, being an election year, Obama now has a better chance of gaining from the goodwill in the ballot box. However, those extra months were still damaging. They represent a few extra months that young gay people felt more isolated. They represent a few extra months that states like North Carolina could vote on anti-gay legislation without their voters being quite as conscious of the fact that their bigoted viewpoint is outdated. It represents, then, a few extra months that our glorious president was willing to sacrifice the well-being of Americans in favor of his own political fortunes.
The story here should be that the successful efforts of the gay rights movement to encourage millions Americans to shed a chauvinistic belief that had quite recently still been deeply entrenched has finally been embraced by the President, which represents a true watershed moment in our nation’s history. I’m fine with the headline “Obama Declares Support for Gay Marriage,” but the first lines should have read:
Supporters of the gay rights movement are celebrating a watershed moment in their history. American support for gay marriage is now so strong that President Obama, who previously indicated that he would wait until it was politically expedient, has dropped his charade of having an “evolving” position, stating in an interview that he does indeed support gay marriage.
Any secondary stories focusing on Obama (rather than the gay rights victory itself) should either be the one Nate Silver tells in his column (why didn’t Obama do this sooner?) or a reflection on Obama’s history of expedience on this and other issues. Instead, the secondary story seems to be that Obama has done a great thing. At least he grabbed the opportunity to embrace history when it was placed in his lap.