It is great news that President Barack Obama again holds the position he held in 1996, saying, “It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married” (with video here). Having publicly opposed equality in the intervening years, it is a major statement that he joins Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton on the side of equality. Whether or not this was prompted by Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on Sunday, he is stating what most presume he believed, but it makes a difference that he sees it politically possible to do so.
With national opinion polls showing majorities in favour of equal marriage, there was no reason left for him to pretend not be on the right side of history on this question. Most imagined that a year or two into his second term, that he would announce that his position had finally evolved to support equality for gay and lesbian families. But he could reasonably have been accused of political cowardice; this way, he enters his second term clear on this policy.
Chris Cilizza in the Washington Post has analysed the political implications, predicting that there will be some downside for him on this. I’d broadly disagree. I think most Americans for whom opposition to equality in marriage is a salient issue would already be voting against Obama. He has made a commitment to equality for gay people part of his first term, from not defending the Defense of Marriage Act to his part in the end of Don’t Act Don’t Tell in the military. Some may point to polls against equality in swing states; what matters though, is for how many wing voters in these states is this a swing issue. Ultimately, no one should have been in any fundamental doubt about where he was on the spectrum.
For politically cynical among the Democrats, this will help his funding, bring out some voters, and stop others from who voted for him in 2008 casting votes instead for the Libertarian, Green or Justice Party candidates. But it will also force Mitt Romney to talk about this issue, which he really doesn’t want to do, but has signed a National Organization for Marriage pledge to support a Federal Marriage Amendment, banning same-sex marriage in all 50 states. I think the advantage in this regard would have been greater still had Obama announced this during the primaries, while Rick Santorum would have been there do highlight the religious fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party. On the whole, I think the political implications of this are marginal, though Obama may lose North Carolina.
Someone remarked to me yesterday evening that Obama in 2008 will presumably be the last time a Democratic candidate for president to be publicly opposed to allowing gay couples to marry. Could we see 2016 as the equivalent election for Republicans? Given the strong trend which is only gathering momentum, it wouldn’t surprise me, though I would certainly say so in the case of 2020.
Again, back to Barack Obama last night, this is indeed great news. This is not just about the electoral cycle. It is about every gay person in the United States, particularly those in difficult situations because of their sexuality, who knows that the president is a clear ally, finally the fierce advocate he promised he would be. And this will change minds. There are people till yesterday who could say to themselves that domestic/civil unions/partnerships must be all right, as it was the position of even Barack Obama. Now they will have to think again. This will change culture, which is just as important as changes in the law, the one complementing the other. The United States is a good few steps away now from achieving proper equality for all its gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender citizens. But with POTUS on board, it has moved a major step in that direction.