No matter which way the Supreme Court ultimately rules on gay marriage, pro or con, narrowly or expansively, gay rights organizations owe President Obama a debt of gratitude for pushing the nation's opinion envelope forward in support of gay marriage. It's true that gay rights' groups waged a tireless decade's long struggle against the wall of bigotry, ignorance, religious distortion and intolerance and the towering legal barriers to gay marriage. It's equally true that one of those that stood fast behind one of those barriers was Obama. His self-admitted soul-search journey from passive opponent of gay marriage to having profound conflicts about it, to finally full-throated support of the right, is well-known.
What's less well-known is that Obama's final epiphany on gay marriage was not just one man's conversion to a controversial cause. The politics of that conversion was profound; it put the White House stamp on it. It's part myth that presidents simply are solely the bellwether of public opinion, and don't make a move without first sticking their finger in the wind to see which way public opinion is blowing. Studies have shown that it cuts both ways. Presidents do have the awesome power to influence, sway, and even change public opinion on controversial issues.
There was Franklin Roosevelt's slow whittle away at America's isolationist resistance to the fight against fascism in the run-up to World War II, Truman's bold stand on integration of the armed forces, and Eisenhower's grudging but eventually tough stance enforcing school integration in Little Rock. There was Kennedy's public face-down of the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis, Johnson's push on civil rights and poverty, and Nixon's opening to China. Then there was Carter's Middle East peace initiative, Reagan's public assault on government programs, Clinton's revamp of welfare, and Bush's sell of the Iraq war. These were pivotal issues that sharply moved the dial on public opinion.
Obama's breakthrough stance nearly a year ago on gay marriage must be seen in the same light. Before the president's announcement support for same sex marriage had barely nudged toward the halfway mark among those who said they supported it. This was a significant jump from six years earlier when support for gay marriage stood at under 40 percent. Even more dramatic was the sharp turnaround in black attitudes toward gay marriage. Blacks had been one of the staunchest opponents of gay marriage, and were the final trump card that Christian evangelicals and GOP ultraconservatives played hard to spearhead ballot initiatives in several states banning same-sex marriage. On the eve of the president's announcement of his support for gay marriage, black support for it had climbed to nearly 60 percent. Following the president's announcement, all the major civil rights organizations, and even a number of religious leaders publicly declared their support of gay rights. Many Hispanic organizations also publicly endorsed same-sex marriage too.
One key in just how a president's view on a controversial issue ultimately matters is whether a president will back up his words of support (or opposition) with aggressive action. This means translating his support into public policy initiatives. Obama set the stage for that over the years even when he opposed or was ambivalent about gay marriage.
He backed gay rights in speeches and legislation 18 times before he grabbed the White House. He showed the same support and sensitivity in his appointments. He was only the second president to speak at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign. The fact is that the group thought enough of his gay rights advocacy to invite him. Obama pointedly lent his name to opponents of Proposition 8 to use in mailers that they circulated, and did the same in the case of other initiatives in other states.
Obama sent a subtle signal of his gay rights support on the issue on the Defense of Marriage Act. He could have kept hands off the issue by letting the legal challenge to it run its course. Other presidents had done that when they thought a law was unconstitutional or unjust. This argument though ignored what Obama had said about traditional marriage too, not to mention that he made it plain that he wanted the law repealed -- but repealed through legislation that he would push for.
One final tip of the decisive importance of Obama's gay marriage support came during the 2012 presidential election. Polls found that the issue would not be a factor in voter's support or opposition to him. Even more importantly, the same polls showed that Obama got a bump up in the number of voters who were more likely to back him or at least back him more enthusiastically because of his gay marriage support.
Presidents can and often do make a difference, a big difference, in pushing, cudgeling, and whipsawing the nation forward on an issue. Obama's stance on gay marriage was proof of that. Gays, and indeed the nation, should be thankful for that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.