Obama should support equal marriage in his State of the Union address
This is not 2004. In that year, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favour of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, the first US state to allow this. It was only a year after Lawrence v. Texas, in which the US Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws in 14 states. In that year’s presidential election, the Republican incumbent George W. Bush proposed a Federal Marriage Amendment to amend the US Constitution to define marriage as between a man and and a woman, prohibiting states from enacting laws to contrary effect. It would have been the second Amendment to restrict the freedoms of US citizens, the first being the 18th Amendment in 1919, introducing prohibition (repealed in 1933). President Bush’s Democratic opponent, John Kerry, a Senator from Massachusetts, supported civil unions, while opposing both equal marriage and any proposal to define marriage at a federal level. Referendums to amend state constitutions to define marriage as only between a man and a woman appeared on the ballot in a number of states in November 2004, driving up conservative turnout, and contributing to the vote of Bush against Kerry, in what was a close election.
But a lot has changed in those eight years on the issue of gay marriage. Then it seemed destined to be a nice feature of certain liberal enclaves, whether in the US or in Europe. Now it seems an inevitability, only a matter of time across most of the developed world. Last year, public tracking polling by Gallup showed for the first time that a majority of Americans supported legal gay marriage, with 53% in favour and 45% against. The figures in 2004 were 55% in favour, and 42% against. The figures in 2004 were 42% in favour and 55% against, and they remained steady till last year. An annual tracking poll should be reliable, but in case it looks too sudden to be credible, it was corroborated by similar figures from the Washington Post (53%) and CNN (51%).
So maybe it’s time for President Barack Obama to finish his public process of evolution on the issue. I have only been following the issue closely since the day after his election, but there have been a few things quite recently that might have prompted the shift among more moderate Americans, politically defined (59% of Independents, 65% of Moderates in Gallup). The debate is taking place more publicly, and the passage of New York’s Marriage Equality Act was possible only with the support of Republican legislators. The challenge to California’s Proposition 8, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, was brought to particular prominence because it was represented by Ted Olson, former Solicitor-General for President George W. Bush, along with David Boies, who had argued against each other in Bush v. Gore in 2000. Former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney has also expressed support. Equal access to marriage for all couples is being understood from a conservative case as well as on any other merits.
Does anyone really think President Obama is in the shrinking minority of Democrats who are against equal marriage? I think he has actually supported it from as early as 1996, and has been telling us otherwise for political advantage. His Department of Justice has stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act. So of course it would the most honest thing to tell us what he really thinks. By continuing to oppose, he provides ammunition to the opposition, who can say, “Even Obama only supports civil unions”. His answer to the question in 2008, citing religious reasons, was used in phone calls by the Yes side in Proposition 8. If he leaves an announcement till a second term, it could well be accused of political cowardice on the issue.
But even aside from the moral argument, I think it could make political sense. His position would become an accepted fact by the autumn, rather than being raised and pressed particularly during the height of the election campaign. He would boost the turnout and activism of unaffiliated gay rights groups and give liberals who have become disenchanted with him a reason to turn out. I am going to acknowledge personal bias and geographical distance, but I don’t believe it would particularly swing Independent voters against him, bearing the figure above in mind. It would though affect the Republican primary race. It would make that great defender of traditional marriage, Newt Gingrich, yet more likely in Florida, as conservative voters move towards him to make a point. It could ensure that the loathsome Rick Santorum raises money to stay in the race longer and remind voters of the worst aspects of the Republican Party. And it would force Mitt Romney, still the likely Republican nominee, to take a stance that could turn off Independent voters.
As long the US Constitution has the Fourteenth Amendment, I would see questions of equality between citizens as a federal matter, agreeing with the American Foundation for Equal Rights, and their case as explained by Boies and Olson. But what’s legally reasonable is not always politically so. What Barack Obama should do then later today in his State of the Union would be to say something like, “Last year, we saw the New York Assembly pass a Marriage Equality Act. That was a joyous day, when politicians reached across the aisle to find what they believed was the best way to protect equal rights for all its citizens. You have all heard commentary on my evolving view on this issue, and events this past year have led me to support marriage for all couples. This is a matter that I believe best determined at a state level, but I pledge my full support to the Respect for Marriage Act so that those legally married at home can be recognized by the federal government”.