Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why now?

It's a tough job sometimes being press secretary, especially when the press latches onto some issue like a pack of wolves and won't let go. Yesterday, Jay Carney was subjected to about twenty minutes of repetitive questions on why the president won't come out in favor of gay marriage already. (transcript here) Vice President Biden and Secretary of Education Duncan now say they have no problems with gay marriage, so what's with the president? Is his position still evolving? Poor Jay Carney had to keep repeating the litany that this president has done more for gay rights than any president in history--repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell, refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, expanding rights for federal employees, etc.--but that wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the wolf pack. Once they tasted blood, they kept hammering away on the same question.

Instead of pounding the president on why he doesn't change his position on this important issue right away, I wish some reporters would ask, why should the president come out at this particular moment in support of gay marriage? Granted he holds the highest elected position in the country and serves as a model and a leader, still the question is somewhat out of his jurisdiction. The constitutional issue of marriage equality will be decided by the courts, regardless of how the president feels about the issue. And the definition of marriage, aside from legitimate questions under the U.S. Constitution, is entirely up to state legislatures and state courts. It's not like the state legislators in Mississippi or North Carolina are suddenly going to decide to pass laws allowing gay marriage in those states just because President Obama suggests they do that.

And I would also ask, who benefits if the president were to come out at this particular moment in support of gay marriage? I imagine that first of all, people like Karl Rove and Mitt Romney's campaign team would do a little victory dance if they heard Obama make a statement supporting gay marriage. Then they would get right to work on the videos repeating the president's statement which they would re-play endlessly in Republican campaign commercials in key swing states across the country for the next six months. Supporters of gay marriage might think it would help get the base enthused about the president's re-election if he were to make a strong statement supporting the rights of gays to marry. That might be true, but how would such a statement help the president's re-election chances in Ohio? or North Carolina? or Missouri? or a number of the other states that are actually going to decide this year's election?

Is it worth pressuring the president to make a statement that has no power to change anything in and of itself, if the result of doing that would be to elect candidates who are unequivocally opposed to gay rights? I understand the argument that principles should not be sacrificed to political considerations, but if we don't take account of political realities, we might be sacrificing the principle also.

I also appreciate that people have strong feelings on this issue, as well as the argument that they shouldn't have to wait to have their rights recognized, any more than black people or women should have had to wait to have their civil rights recognized. But people who are strongly pushing this issue should also appreciate that they already have won the battle in a number of states, as well as the fact that they are not going to win the battle in another bunch of states for some time, no matter what the president says or does not say. Even if the Supreme Court were to decide tomorrow that states must allow marriage equality to comply with the Constitution (which doesn't seem the most likeliest of prospects given the current Court), there would still be resistance for years in conservative states, much like the resistance to abortion rights has only increased in many places since the Supreme Court recognized that right. Supporters of gay marriage should therefore give serious thought to whether their own cause will be assisted in either the short or the long run by forcing the president to take a position right now, during his re-election campaign. Thank kind of pressure might only help the president's political opponents, who are not exactly the biggest supporters of gay marriage.

I think it's important never to underestimate the power of backlash in politics, and to understand that some kinds of political pressure can result in the opposite of what those behind the pressure might want. My suggestion, as usual, is to show the president more support, as that is a much better strategy toward change on this, as on so many other issues. So if the president decides to hold off on taking a stronger position on this issue, I would give him the benefit of any doubt about that. And if he decides to make a strong statement tomorrow endorsing marriage equality, I expect I would fully support that also.

UPDATE (5/9/12): President Obama's strong statement came out today, as I must have had a premonition it might, given how quickly attention to this issue was building. As I indicated in my final sentence above, I of course fully support the president's position. What surprises me a little is how big of a f'ing deal President Obama's stand on gay marriage turns out to be. (The Huffington Post article on the president's interview already has more than 45,000 comments, which is some kind of record.) I probably didn't recognize what big news this is because I can't help looking at the question of the president's opinion on this issue from a legalistic point of view. As a legal matter, gay marriage is an issue of state law and possibly federal constitutional law, over both of which the president has no direct say. But the president's moral authority is still tremendous, no matter how divided public opinion is about the president and about the issue of gay marriage. No wonder then that the president's statement is being seen as a watershed moment in the history of civil rights for gay couples.


  1. Thumbs up to Obama. Major respect to him today.

    So refreshing to see him say no to the political charade.

  2. I hope a lot of voters see it that way. Maybe by taking a politically risky stand, the president will actually benefit politically.