05/10/2012 11:21 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

Obama's Gay Marriage Endorsement a Step in Evolution of American Identity

Perhaps inevitably, President Barack Obama's long-overdue declaration of support for gay marriage is mostly being parsed for signs of what it means for his personal political fortunes and the course of the 2012 campaign. We are a nation addicted to politics. Seemingly everything that happens -- a change in the unemployment rate, the killing of Osama bin-Laden, rumblings of war with Iran -- gets processed through the lens of who won the week in Washington and how the news will play in the discrete worlds of red and blue.

But sometimes the thing is the thing, as is the case with this particular thing.

The president's words of support for the still-controversial notion that men and women in committed same-sex relationships ought to be accorded the same respect and civil rights as everyone else provokes all sorts of questions, some reasonable and some beside the point. How will it affect voters in swing states? Was this another case of Obama's pragmatic calculation, or a real evolution of values? How will African-American voters -- too often reduced to cartoonish one-issue robots, and homophobic ones at that -- react to the news? What happens now in the states, the jurisdictions that predominantly determine the course of liberty for gay Americans?

We can hash all this out, and we ought to, at least on the substantive questions of legality. Obama's words have the force of symbolism alone. They do not change the law or remove the discrimination still confronted by gay people throughout much of life, and most pointedly on the matter of marriage. It is worth pressing the White House for follow-through: Will the president deliver an executive order to require companies receiving federal contracts not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, as some have urged he should? These are important subjects, and worthy questions.

But years from now, when historians look back at the long arc of American history, they will see in the president's announcement a significant moment. As they trace the social change that -- let us hope -- eventually came to render diversity in sexual orientation as an accepted part of what defines American society, they will absorb Obama's words as a turning point.

The fact that those words came late, after the vice president's and the secretary of education's, and the fact that gay rights advocates were deeply disappointed with this president in the run-up will be mere footnotes. The short-term political context -- concern about the youth vote, balanced against the backlash from socially conservative voters in swing states -- will fade into memory, and then disappear.

This is not to lionize Obama for an act of political courage (though it was that) or to let him off the hook for the ham-handed timing and the obvious political pragmatism that weighed in his deliberations (fair hits). This is to say that the full significance of Obama's words are, in the end, not about Obama or his presidency or the election that consumes an inordinate share of intellectual bandwidth. They are about what sort of country this is, and what sort of country it can yet be, even as we suffer the frustrations and depredations of a messy, maddening style of democracy. This is a case in which the political leadership finally caught up with the country.

The real meaning of Obama's announcement is found not in the evolution of this one man's thinking, but in the evolution of the American character -- which has now taken a significant step forward.