With Barack Obama's evolution on marriage equality increasingly untenable following Vice President Joe Biden's statement of support on NBC's Meet the Press, the president finally took the big leap yesterday and said, "I do." In an interview with ABC's Robin Roberts, Obama made history as the first sitting president to support gay marriage:
I have to tell you that over the course of several years, as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed, monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that "don't ask, don't tell" is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.
It was a bold political earthquake, fraught with opportunities and pitfalls, smack dab in the middle of a tough reelection campaign. The decision came only one day after North Carolina, a potential swing state, voted for a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage.
The president and his advisers must have calculated that the benefits of appearing resolute and firm outweighed the costs of alienating conservative democrats in swing states. In a sense, Obama pulled a card from George W. Bush's playbook, saying to voters, I am the Decider. You may not agree with everything I do, but whether it is killing Osama bin Laden, supporting the auto bailout, or embracing marriage equality, I am a leader and not a poll-reading politician with one finger to the wind.
Here is Mitt Romney's reaction to Obama's announcement:
Well, when these issues were raised in my state of Massachusetts, I indicated my view, which is I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender, and I do not favor civil unions if they are identical to marriage other than by name. ... My view is the domestic partnership benefits, hospital visitation rights, and the like are appropriate but that the others are not.
The hope is that Obama's bravery contrasts favorably with the ever-morphing Etch A Sketch known as Mitt Romney. No matter one's opinion, the president appears strong, while Romney comes across as a weak, pandering politician. Indeed, he cowered in the face of Rush Limbaugh and has failed to take on supporters who call the president a traitor. Obama's decision yesterday shows he has a moral core and is a change agent -- just as he promised in his first campaign. Obama's strategists hope such leadership qualities will play well in the war for independent voters.
Furthermore, Team Obama hopes that yesterday's decision will energize the progressive base and open the floodgates for gay volunteers and money. An excited base will be needed to counteract the expected onslaught of anti-gay groups that will portray the president as a radical, gay-loving socialist.
Make no mistake: yesterday's announcement is risky.
Because no sitting president has ever embraced marriage equality, we don't know the total extent of the fallout in the nine swing states that will decide this election. Clearly, these states are not all bastions of tolerance: Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. There is also concern over how yesterday's decision will impact the four states that lean in favor of the Democrats (Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico, and Maine) and the states that teeter toward the GOP (Arizona, Missouri, Indiana, and North Carolina).
The challenge for the LGBT community and its allies is to organize and mobilize to limit potential ramifications while capitalizing on the good will. An Obama victory means four more years of Americans becoming comfortable with the idea of their LGBT friends and family members marrying. It means fair-minded Supreme Court justices, who may well have more impact on this issue than any president. It results in almost half a decade of unbridled and irreversible cultural change, while watching polls in support of same-sex marriage likely approach 60 percent.
I also know that this is the last time we will ever have this debate. Vice President Joe Biden's comments in favor of marriage on Meet the Press, combined with Education Secretary Arne Duncan's seal of approval, signals that the debate is over in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party. This is even more apparent when one considers that party elders, such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, have endorsed gay marriage. Both are not only former presidents but committed Christians, which essentially gives Democrats of faith permission to vote their consciences.
The president's decision to support marriage equality means that any Democrat with presidential ambitions who claims he or she is still evolving will be an unelectable dinosaur.
Obama went out on a limb to do what is moral and just. The question remains whether this is a triumph or a trap for the 2012 election. Anyone who claims they actually know the answer is kidding you. This is entirely new terrain, and it is up the LGBT community and their progressive allies to reward the president for his historic actions.