On Wednesday, President Obama became the first sitting president to support marriage equality for gays and lesbians. The president’s support does nothing to alter the moral case for marriage equality. While Obama said he personally supported same-sex marriage, he didn't say he thought states should be required to make same-sex marriages legal. And his changing position is probably the result of the already changing attitudes of Americans toward same-sex marriage. But it was a watershed moment nonetheless.
Most observers already believed that the president privately favored marriage equality. In 1996 he submitted a questionnaire to a magazine called Outlines saying that he favored “legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” A year ago, Obama’s Justice Department refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act’s definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman on the grounds that it violated the due process rights of same-sex couples who are legally married under state law. But as a senator and as president he had until now refused to endorse marriage for same-sex couples. In 2010 he explained that he struggled with the issue and that his feelings were “constantly evolving.”
It was a weak, increasingly untenable equivocation. It came to a head last weekend when Vice President Biden said in an interview Sunday that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage. Obama had already angered his supporters in the gay community by refusing to issue an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. When the White House clumsily tried to walk back Biden’s comments, Obama’s supporters in the gay community began to balk at giving more money to his Super PAC.
There are reasons to doubt that Obama’s announcement will have much effect on his chances at reelection. A majority of Americans support same-sex marriage now. The move will likely energize support for Obama on the left and among younger voters. Marriage equality is probably not a determining issue for most swing voters. And Obama might actually prefer to talk about social issues than to talk about the economy in any case. But the move is not without political risk. It could make it more difficult for Obama to win in the key swing states of Virginia and North Carolina, where 61% of voters voted this week to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex unions of any type. Same-sex marriage remains the kind of controversial, politically-charged issue that politicians prefer to avoid.
Personally, I don’t care whether Obama is taking deeply felt moral stand or simply bowing to the winds of change. Either way he deserves credit for finally speaking out and doing what’s right. Either way it is a historic and moving victory for advocates of equality.
President Obama and Robin Roberts image from Pete Souza