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Saladin Ambar

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Obama, Gay Rights and the Abrahamic Law of Politics

Posted: 06/06/2012 11:14 am

"I claim not to have controlled events," wrote Abraham Lincoln, "but confess plainly that events have controlled me." Whether the "event" in question for President Obama's acceptance of gay marriage was an awkward Joe Biden appearance on Meet the Press is not so important. What is relevant is that this president's aversions to supporting gay marriage rights ended as so many other presidential hesitations have: When the political tipping point for supporting controversial measures revealed more harm than benefit. Even so, the president deserves no less credit for supporting gay marriage rights.

As Robert Caro has shown (and shown, and shown!), Lyndon Johnson went from being perhaps the greatest modern political force against racial progress in the United States to its greatest champion. That transformation seemed to happen almost overnight -- but careful readers of Johnson (and Caro) will note that there was "evolutionary" evidence there all along. So it is with Obama. The art of presidential politics is knowing when it is time to ride the crest or avoid the tsunami. Johnson couldn't have gotten a Civil Rights bill of any strength passed in 1957 -- but he got the one he could, and it was something to build on for 1964.

In that vein, there is a little bit of piling on of Bill Clinton among the Left at the moment, and it's understandable. But what cannot, and should not, be forgotten was how progressive Don't Ask Don't Tell was at the time. Need I remind gentle readers, that lesbian vampires were just starting to kiss on television and not part of half the cable lineup? When we look back at that "bridge to the 21st century" that President Clinton said he'd build, today's supporters of equal rights for all Americans -- for that newly hyphenated group created by former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy, -- "Gay Americans" -- should see DADT as the essential approach to that bridge.

Of course this is a maddening way to go about meaningful change. But that is the purpose of political movements, of protest, of activism. "Power concedes nothing without a demand," Frederick Douglass once famously said. It often doesn't concede power, even in the face of one.

But as demonstrated most recently by President George W. Bush on the issue of same sex marriage, you cannot have a dialectical struggle for progress by yourself. Obama's rightful claim to credit has been his willingness to engage the issue. His success as president in this, and in so many other decisions, depends upon his wisdom in knowing when to part company with old ways, to know when politics and justice are in harmony. Imagine how very different, how much stronger nationally, today's GOP would be if it allowed for similar "evolution" on immigration. While Obama trails Romney by a handful of points in Arizona's latest presidential poll, the Republican Party is trailing the Latino vote by well outside history's margin of error.

In the end, it is true that not a single same-sex marriage can occur today where it could not before because of Obama's statement. But that is missing the point. We do not speak of the Emancipation Act, after all. It was, as is often pointed out, merely a proclamation. But what a proclamation! Presidential rhetoric may not be what it was, and this era of partisan divide has made just about anything any president says subject to laughter for its want of impact. But President Barack Obama ended one chapter in the nation's history and opened another. Presidents can still do that. So, let us embrace, rather than reject the Abrahamic Law of Politics: When the people force events to overrun a president, we create the possibility for him (and someday for her) to reinvent the very idea of what we are as a country. Here's to forcing a hand willing to be forced.

 
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