Obama and Marriage Equality: The Inspirational, the Cynical, and the Practical

May 10, 2012

I am of three minds on Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage yesterday. (I have a very big head, and can easily accomodate all three minds within my spacious skull.) I am equal parts inspired, cynical, and pragmatic. Allow me to parse it out.

I’ll begin with the cynical. What’s crucial to remember amid the celebration is that the president announced no intention to work on behalf of marriage equality, offered up no legislative action, and did not even denounce the result of North Carolina’s anti-gay legislative overkill from this week. Indeed, he broadcast his intention to do exactly nothing from his position as president, telling Robin Roberts:

. . . what I’m saying is is that different states are coming to different conclusions. But this debate is taking place at a local level. And I think the whole country is evolving and changing. And you know, one of the things that I’d like to see is that a conversation continue in a respectful way. 

Obama keeps the debate squarely within state borders, showing no inclination to push for equality beyond the confines of his own conscience. In fact, he uses his remoteness, his unwillingness to engage, in an intentional and substantive way: as a positive contrast with Mitt Romney:

Part of the reason that I thought it was important, to speak to this issue, was the fact that, you know, I’ve got an opponent on the other side in the upcoming presidential election, who wants to re-federalize the issue and institute a constitutional amendment that would prohibit gay marriage. And, you know, I think it is a mistake to try to make what has traditionally been a state issue into a national issue.

That’s key. He’s not at all saying it’s wrong for states to ban gay marriage. He’s saying that Romney is incorrect because of his desire to nationalize the issue, not because he’s on the wrong side of human rights. Yes, Obama disagrees with Romney as to whether the right for gay couples to marry should exist, but the debate as Obama frames it here is about process, not moral principle. 

I don’t doubt the president’s sincerity on this issue. Indeed, it is fairly absurd to think that he has not supported gay marriage equality all along (as he affirmed in 1996, and later disavowed) and has simply hedged on the issue in order to weather political storms, to live to fight another day. The inspirational part of this whole episode is clear: The President of the United States announced his support for marriage equality for gays and lesbians. No matter what the political chattering class says about the timing, or whether Joe Biden forced his hand, the fact remains that Obama in no way had to make this declaration. “Evolving” or no, the president could easily have tread the same path he has for years, backing civil unions and staying just shy of using the M-word (no, not “Mormon”). Obama chose to do this now, and it really does matter on a cultural level, in a big way. And by mattering on a cultural level, it changes the long-term (if not short-term) political outlook for marriage equality. Joe Biden gave a lot of credit to Will & Grace, which has a lot of truth to it I suspect, and now we can thank the president for adding his thumb to the scale. 

On to the practical. Add this all up, and look at the electoral map with an analytical eye. Politically, the president would be handing the White House to Romney by advocating for or initiating federal action on behalf of national marriage equality. Imagine the barrage, the overwhelming deluge of attack ads in states like Ohio and Virginia that would hammer the president for imposing his imperial, hyperliberal will on OUR upstanding, independent, moral state. Obama’s message to the swing states is, in essence, “I’m cool with gays getting married, but don’t worry guys, I’m not going to mess with your state.” Electorally, he has no choice. And it goes without saying that, as Obama himself points out, a Romney presidency would mean the opposite; a president who would work to impose his view of marriage at the federal level, whether your state likes it or not — which is true!

Politics can be so ugly and Rube-Goldbergian, especially when minority rights are concerned, as we in the secular movement know so very well. We sadly have a binary choice for the presidency, and even though we seculars tear our hair out over Obama’s bolstering of things like the National Prayer Breakfast and faith-based initiatives, we also have no illusions that a Romney presidency would be more atheist-friendly. (I feel compelled to remind the reader that CFI is officially nonpartisan.) Obama has made a careful strategic choice on behalf of a greater good. It may feel like weak tea now, because it is, but I think only because it’s the strongest tea the country can swallow at this moment in history.