So while I was busy ending the semester, Obama gave a tepid, hedged, politically non-committal, mealymouthed endorsement to same-sex marriage. Over time, no doubt, his expressions of support for gay rights will increasingly feature less pauses, hesitations, stammers, ambiguities, and qualifications as the American public increasingly gives him permission (in the form of polls on their evolving views) to acknowledge the full civil and moral dignity of gay people and their love.
There were two issues of contention in the wake of his announcement: “Was it political?” and “Did it take longer than it should have?”
Here are the primary points I think are worth keeping in mind.
1. Whether or not Obama’s timing was politically motivated, I have no reason to think his choice to support gay rights is a matter of any kind of political compromise that goes against his real views.
2. During the period that Obama was clearly lying and pretending not to believe in gay marriage for religious reasons (as though Obama is the type of person to unreflectively determine his policy views by baseless, bigoted, outdated religious dogmas), I think Obama showed by his actions that his political calculation was for gays, rather than just for himself.
There are two ways to throw someone under the bus. One is to throw them under the bus for your own benefit—see Bill Clinton instituting “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and signing the unconscionable Defense of Marriage Act. The other is to publicly throw them under the bus because you see it as the only way to gain the power to effectively support them in practice.
Even while the Obama administration was officially on the record as being against full equality for gays, it pushed for and accomplished the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, it ended the ban on immigration for HIV infected people, and it ordered the Department of Justice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act. In practice Obama was clearly using his power to advance gay equality seemingly wherever it was within his reasonable governing means.
3. Nonetheless, one thing that bugged me throughout his whole play act of being a conservative religious man who was slowly evolving (apart from the insult to essentially everyone’s intelligence) was that it cynically discounted the valuable role of philosophical leadership. Presidents do not need to just follow public opinion polls. They actually have the ability to lead them. President Obama showed little courage in assuming the mantle of a leader willing to take an unpopular position and to stand on principle in order to help make it popular.
He was the coolest kid in the school and the class president and though he publicly told the picked on gay kids that things would get better, and though behind the scenes he made some things easier for them, he would not come out and say that the rumors there was something wrong with them were bullshit until the class voted and a majority showed they already thought that. It was pragmatic. In the long run it was effective. But we need the popular kids to use their clout against the bullies before the crowd they command is already behind them.
And, more broadly, the left, and its president, needs to stand up for moral principles and a coherent worldview. Pretending to be a thickheaded religious conservative averse to change who was won over by emotions observing the gay parents of his kids’ friends, Obama ceded the role of philosopher king and ran like his hair was on fire in the other direction. He insisted on pretending that the average American’s hesitations are perfectly understandable and just in need of a little nudge of empathy, rather than in need of a whole different moral framework where inclusiveness is the default and not something minorities need to patiently prove themselves in order to get.
And his moment of leadership, qualified as it was, is already influencing people on behalf of gays.