05/13/2012 02:44 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2012

The Cynicism of Obama's Endorsement of Marriage Rights

Barack Obama has chosen quite a moment to realize that marriage is a basic civil right. Just as a kangaroo court is in session in the dungeon he promised to close, just as young voters are feeling less than enthused about his re-election, just as less than stellar job numbers have independent voters looking right, and just as members of the left who elected him in 2008 wonder why Bush-era tax cuts are still in place, Obama has come to the conclusion that civil unions are an insulting half-measure. How convenient.

Only fools will believe the conversion narrative of his campaign e-mail:

I was reluctant to use the term marriage because of the very powerful traditions it evokes. And I thought civil union laws that conferred legal rights upon gay and lesbian couples were a solution. But over the course of several years I've talked to friends and family about this. I've thought about members of my staff in long-term, committed, same-sex relationships who are raising kids together ... What I've come to realize is that for loving, same-sex couples, the denial of marriage equality means that, in their eyes and the eyes of their children, they are still considered less than full citizens.

How frightening that a constitutional scholar could just now come to the realization that all citizens must be equal before the law. And the language of this message goes beyond what he stated on ABC News, where he emphasized that he is speaking "personally" rather than in an official capacity. In addressing an audience broader than existing contributors, he is careful not to make anything sounding like an expansion of citizenship and an affirmation of legal rights. His recent "realization" on gay marriage is as callously political as his erstwhile position on civil unions. This is not a principled defense of a fundamental right by an elected official willing to advance justice; it is a cynical use of the language of justice that does not even attempt to articulate a shift in policy.

Adam Serwer is thus exactly right to point out that Obama's official attitude has not changed much at all. This expression of his personal views has not altered his position that the issue should be left to the states, no matter how benighted those states may be. To this point Serwer adds the observation that Obama's much-touted recognition of marriage rights differs little from that of Dick Cheney, a politician whose progressivism we may be forgiven for doubting.

The counter-argument is that Obama is taking a politically risky move in making this announcement, particularly in swing states like North Carolina. I disagree. First, as Nate Silver shows, the risks are not so great in that prevailing public opinion is coming more and more to accept marriage rights for gays and lesbians. Second, if there were political risk involved, why would Obama initially have planned to announce his conversion at the Democratic Convention? Precisely because his statement has the character of all statements at a party convention: it is a flashy, and fundamentally empty, attempt to rally the base.

And after four years of uninspiring centrism, Obama does need to re-brand himself as a candidate progressives should be excited about. He is engaging in precisely the kind of cheap cultural politics that Democrats despise in Republicans: he is placing himself on the progressive side of a hotly contested cultural issue and baiting his opponents into spewing anti-gay bigotry, which bait they will take only too eagerly. He has yet to commit to any sort of action on advancing the marriage rights of gays and lesbians. Instead he is showing that he is still incapable of a firm stance on this matter, though willing to exploit it for short-term political gains.

Cross-posted from Dissent Magazine