President Barack Obama has done more in support of gay rights than any previous US President. He presided over repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law thus enabling gay soldiers to serve openly in the US military. His administration has determined that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and taken that position in pending court cases. Yet the President has not come out in support of same sex marriage.
Politically speaking, the most important issue for the cause of gay rights in the US is whether or not President Obama wins re-election. His Republican opponent in the Presidential contest supports an amendment to the US Constitution which would ban same sex marriage. It is far more important for the cause of gay rights that Obama be re-elected than whether he comes out in favor of same sex marriage before the election.
That said, the wise political choice for the President is the same as the correct ethical and moral choice – to support marriage equality for same sex couples. Some of his closest associates have already done so. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, delivered a forceful and eloquent address to the UN Commission on Human Rights that gay rights are human rights. Recently Vice President Biden came out in support of same sex marriage during an interview on Meet the Press recalling what he told a gay couple, I wish every American could see the look of love those kids had in their eyes for you guys, and they wouldn't have any doubt about what this is about. Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, have also came out in support of marriage equality. One can be sure that the press will now ask every prominent member of the administration about their position on this issue. The Democrats may well make marriage equality a plank in their platform.
President Obama previously in his political career has supported marriage equality. Why is he refusing to take a position on this issue now? The political calculus may be that he believes that he needs the support of African American churches to get their parishioners to vote in the Presidential election. Many of the preachers in these churches oppose gay rights. In fact, passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008 banning same sex marriage has been ascribed in part to the increased turnout of African Americans who came out to vote for Barack Obama for President but then also voted in support of Proposition 8.
However, I think the above political calculation is wrong. Support for marriage equality is now a majority view in the United States. President Obama coming out for marriage equality would provide him with an energized base of gay Americans, their friends and families, and proponents of civil rights. Members of this community would vote for President Obama in any case, but some may hold back from active involvement in the campaign while President Obama holds back on this issue. Opponents of Barack Obama are already energized and will oppose him regardless of whether or not he comes out openly to support marriage equality.
President Obama has the opportunity to take the lead on the preeminent civil rights issue of our day – which befits his status as the first US President of African ancestry. To fail to do so makes him look like he is just politically triangulating on this issue. Obama needs to contrast himself with Mitt Romney whose labile etch-a-sketch political views are revised with every change in the political winds.
If President Obama can present himself as the candidate who courageously supports causes because they are right and just, and not because of a political calculus, he will distinguish himself from his opponent. This politically and ethically wise path will garner the President the energy of his supporters that enabled him to get elected in 2008. Their support has now gone limp and requires some political boldness to get revitalized. The best political strategy may be the politics-be-damned strategy.
The majority of Americans have already evolved on the topic of marriage equality, it is time for the President to do so too and belatedly take a leadership role on this issue.
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