Can we, please, be clear about President Obama’s reasons for announcing his personal support for same-sex marriage?
It’s not because:
- He has genuinely moved from opposition to support over the last 4 years;
- He was unable to justify discrimination to his daughters (as Chris Rock suggested to applause on last night’s Graham Norton Show);
- He’s making, without regard to the political cost, a courageous stand on a point of high principle that really matters to him;
- His experiences as a child (when his parent’s mixed-race marriage would have been illegal in several US states) caused him to see gay marriage as a modern ‘civil rights’ issue;
- He’s so dependent on the campaign donations of wealthy gay people that he’s been forced to dance to their tune;
- He sees same-sex marriage as the perfect issue to win over undecided heterosexual voters in crucial swing states.
President Obama has announced his personal support for same-sex marriage for purely political reasons. In essence, he’s calculated that the benefits of announcing his support –
- reenergising the liberal wing of the Democrats;
- identifying himself with the ‘new’ consensus among young voters instead of the ‘old’ consensus among older voters;
- avoiding the appearance of a split with his Vice President, Joe Biden (who had already come out in favour);
- sharpening the distinction between himself and the Republican nominee Mitt Romney;
- drawing liberal attention away from what they would regard as his failures in office (an inability to deliver healthcare reform) to what they would see as one of his relative successes (gradual, incremental weakening of anti-gay policies);
outweigh the costs –
- alienating religious conservatives (who wouldn’t have voted for him anyway);
- alienating evangelical Christians in the African American community (who will pretty much hold their noses and vote for him regardless);
- highlighting one of the issues on which Romney and the Republican right can find common cause (the Tea-partiers were pretty much guaranteed to vote for the anti-Obama candidate anyway, even if Romney wouldn’t have been their preferred choice).
That’s not to deny that President Obama’s announcement is welcome, and that it represents a milestone in the campaign for marriage equality in the US: it is welcome, and it does represent a milestone. (Although it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a purely symbolic milestone, since only the Supreme Court can order State governments to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples, and only Congress or the Court can change the law to grant same-sex marriages Federal recognition.) It’s significant, though, and welcome, because of what it says about the success of the campaign for marriage equality (and the failure of the hysterical hate-spewing of the Christian Right), not because of what it says about President Obama.
President Obama’s announcement was a political calculation, not a declaration of principle. He may or may not actually support same-sex marriage (for what it’s worth, count me amongst those who think that he probably does), but in doing this he has simply followed where the opinion polls led. President Obama is not a conviction politician – he was hardly one of those when he ran in 2008, and he’s become even more cautious in office. He’s no Lyndon B Johnson, who ended racial segregation in America even though he knew doing so would mean his party ‘lost the South for a generation’; President Obama would never allow principle to get in the way of expediency like that. He’s the heir, not to President Johnson, but to President Clinton – the pro-gay Democrat who was only too willing to sign virulent homophobia into law when he saw that there were votes to be lost if he stuck to his principles.