News Analysis: Behind Obama’s Marriage Endorsement
President Barack Obama’s dramatic announcement in an ABC News interview that his "evolving" views on same-sex marriage had at last evolved to the view of his vice-president and several cabinet members electrified the news cycle.
Of course, the president’s announcement is a true moment in history. Coming on the heels of Vice-President Joe Biden’s giving his support, also on national TV, the endorsement ends three years of speculation and pressure.
In the realm of national politics, however, nothing is simple. Here are some scenarios and possible reasons for the president’s decision finally to come clean on what we all knew he believed (he stated as much when he was working his way up the ladder in Illinois):
It’s not cynical to figure out that money was undoubtedly involved. California politician Jesse Unrah’s famous dictum that "money is the mother’s milk of politics" is just realpolitik stated baldly.
The New York Times reported that one in six of President Obama’s major donors is gay. In addition, many well-heeled supporters on Wall Street, such as the head of Goldman Sachs, who heads the marriage initiative for the Human Rights Campaign, have made gay marriage a priority. So have senior executives at companies like Starbucks, Apple and just about every Hollywood studio.
While it’s certainly not true that all gay men and lesbians are rich, it is true that there are a lot of wealthy gay men and lesbians. After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo spearheaded gay marriage in his state, major gay and gay-friendly donors lined up at his door.
It would be naive not to consider meetings in which Obama’s advisors weighed the amount of money coming into the campaign from a marriage endorsement versus how much would be not coming in if he kept sitting on the fence.
• His Opponent
It’s also not insignificant that he’s making this change facing Mitt Romney as his opponent in November. From the outset of his campaign, Romney has been dogged by the far right for his having overseen the institution of marriage in this country while governor of Massachusetts.
Moreover, his pledge to be more pro-gay than Sen. Ted Kennedy, during his unsuccessful bid to unseat the venerable Massachusetts senator, has become a staple on far-right websites.
Since he began campaigning in Iowa last year, Romney has been busy backtracking on his record. He has now even come out against civil unions, which puts him farther to the right of the issue than George W. Bush, who said he was OK with civil unions while he was running for his second term.
This backtracking risks Romney look craven to those in favor of same-sex marriage, while it makes him look ridiculous to the far right. In contrast, Obama appears principled and his thinking more disciplined.
When Romney was asked about Obama’s position, he soft-pedaled it. It is clear that Romney has realized that an issue that has been red meat for GOP presidential candidates since the early ’90s is a lose-lose for him.
• A Changing GOP
The GOP is changing, rapidly. Views of marriage are evolving along with the electorate. Several news outlets, including this one, have been reporting a rapid change in the GOP toward marriage. The leadership has gone from actively embracing the "culture war" Pat Buchanan fulminated against at the 1992 convention to a much quieter stance.
More recently, the senior ranks of the GOP have begun to comprehend what pollsters have been saying for a while: that younger voters of both parties are strongly in favor of same-sex marriage. True, older voters oppose it in nearly reversible numbers. But who’s going to be voting in 10 or 20 years?
More remarkably, consider the last Republican administration. George Bush’s vice-president, Dick Chaney, has come out for marriage equality. So did Bush’s wife and daughter. The man who ran against Obama, John McCain, has seen his wife endorse it. And his daughter Meghan has been the most forceful advocate for changing the GOP message on all things gay.
Increasingly, the GOP leadership has come to realize that the religious right, as important as they might be to the party’s base, represent only the margins of the electorate. More importantly, their power base is only in the most solidly red states that would go GOP anyway. In the states up for grabs -- Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia -- the evangelical right has a power base only in Virginia, and that’s being rapidly eroded by the wave of educated government and private-sector professionals flooding into the D.C. suburbs.
• Firing Up the Base
Obama is having trouble firing up his own version of the evangelical right, namely the activist left. As the Occupy movement has shown, these people are spoiling for a fight -- a fight that they don’t believe the president has in him.
By appearing to go out on a limb on what has become a touchstone of the activist left (bless their hearts!), Obama is showing that he hasn’t abandoned the principles that originally swept him into office.
The effect is already evident on the Net and in social media, where bloggers, twitters and everyone else is rushing to congratulate the president on his decision. This could mark the turning point in his campaign where the base goes from apathy to activity.
• Firing Up the Youth Vote
News article after news article is supporting poll numbers that show the president is still solidly supported by young voters. But they’re much less enthusiastic than the "yes we can" days of 2008.
Disillusioned by bleak job prospects, the specter of a bankrupt Social Security, the environmental degradation symbolized by the BP oil spill, and above all by what they see as an overly cozy relationship with Wall Street, there has been a real cloud over the youth vote. When he made his announcement for his reelection at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, many commentators noted how many empty seats there were.
Young people are never as active voters as older Americans. By coming out forcefully on an issue for which the vast majority of young people feel straggly, Obama has effectively re-energized this important part of his constituency.
Rest assured, the next time Obama visits a large college campus, all those seats will be taken.
• Black Vote Is Assured
Many on the right have remarked that black voters have shown their disdain for gay marriage. Despite attempts to move the needle, the recent vote in North Carolina showed that this important Democratic constituency is still heavily influenced by culture and church to oppose same-sex marriage.
Those same right-wing pundits, however, also note that black voters are going to vote for Obama no matter what his stance on this issue. And it’s true: The negative (gay marriage) is far outweighed by the positive (the strong symbolism and substance of a black First Family). And, while it may seem cynical, it’s just realistic to note that there is no way black voters are going to gravitate to a rich, white, Mormon Republican. Ain’t gonna happen.
• The Big Question: How Will It Play in Ohio, Florida?
It’s an unfortunate product of the Electoral College, but the fact is that the vast majority of states are already aligned as either red or blue. If you live in a state like mine -- New York -- it’s not going to make much difference how you vote. That holds equally true if you live in Mississippi or Oklahoma. It’s too bad it works out that way, but there’s a reason why we’re called "the United States."
That leaves the battleground states mentioned above. It really, however, boils down to two mega-states. Most experts agree: The 2012 election will be decided by whomever takes Ohio and Florida. Both states are similar in their make-up: a solidly red part (north in Florida, south in Ohio); and a solidly blue part (south Florida; northern Ohio). Ohio has a large number of black voters; Florida, Hispanic ones. Ohio’s evangelicals are balanced by union members. Florida’s "country club" Republicans in strongholds like the southwest and the Southern white voters of Jacksonville are balanced by the solidly Democratic Jewish retirees of the southeast.
The question of how this issue will play in the two states is still up in the air. Both states share a habit of veering back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. In the end, it’s probably a toss-up as to whether this announcement helps or hurts Obama in Florida and Ohio. Which means, the other factors mentioned here have more net effect.
Nothing has dogged Obama more than his waffling on this issue. Everyone knew that he was sympathetic to gay marriage. His Hamlet-like indecision convinced no one of anything except that he was being either craven or just wishy-washy.
It was better in the end for him to come down on one side or the other of this hot-button issue than to try to sit on the fence like Humpty Dumpty. Because we all know what happened to that good egg.
• The Biden Effect
Was Biden a stalking horse for Obama? Or did he go off the reservation? As much as the pundits like to believe that everything is scripted and love to ruminate over important statements, I believe that Biden on Sunday was asked a simple question by a reporter and gave a spontaneous answer.
Nonetheless, there’s no question that it forced the president’s hand. By now, if there was any residual anger in the administration over Biden’s putting the issue front and center, it’s probably been overcome by relief that the cat is finally out of the bag once and for all.
• The DADT Effect
Lost in all of this is one important factor: the repeal of "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell." When Congress finally authorized an end to DADT and allowed gay and lesbian personnel to serve openly in the Armed Forces, self-appointed "experts" like Elaine Donnelly predicted chaos.
Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, there was only an imperceptible sense of openness and a general, well, happiness in the Armed Forces. The one senior military brass who opposed the measure forcibly, the head of the Marines, has publicly admitted he was wrong, wrong, wrong, that the current policy has worked out fine.
Nor has there been a flood of resignations or a drop-off in recruits. In short, what happened is what happened in every industrialized Western democracy, from Israel to Britain to Argentina to Uruguay to Norway and all points in between.
The non-issue of DADT had to have sent out signals to the administration that, if the military can handle it, so can the civilian public. This was a proverbial "running it up the flagpole," where it flew beautifully.
• A New York State of Mind
Obama apparently has said that the dramatic State Senate vote in New York State last June firmed up his support of same-sex marriage. He asked himself how he would have voted and answered in the affirmative.
When New York passed gay marriage, it more than doubled the number of Americans living under a jurisdiction with marriage equality. It proved a watershed moment in the forward movement and showed that, despite setbacks like North Carolina, the large states were going inexorably toward marriage equality -- a notion verified later by Washington State and Maryland.
So Obama came out for same-sex marriage. Good for him! A nice example in politics of doing well by doing good. Now he can bask in the love, the votes -- and the money.
Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).