Friday, May 11, 2012

Why did Obama do it?

Predictably, there's been considerable speculation about why President Obama took the historic step of explicitly and publicly declaring his support for same-sex marriage.

I'll admit that I didn't expect it--certainly not in advance of the upcoming election. Too politically risky, it seemed to me. And whatever else he may be, President Obama is a politician who cares about political risks. The supporters of same-sex marriage were already going to vote for him, so what could be gained by being the first sitting president to take a public stand for marriage equality? Wouldn't he risk mobilizing social conservatives, bringing to the polls those who might otherwise (out of tepid feelings for Romney) have simply stayed home on voting day?

A recent CNN piece suggests the following answer:

"This is an acknowledgment that those voters (conservative Democrats) are largely gone, and the president and the Democrats have to respond to a different coalition: Younger voters. More socially liberal. White collar voters," (Ron) Brownstein (CNN contributor and the National Journal's editorial director) said. "This is a reflection of his understanding that that is now the coalition that is going to elect him and that he needs to respond to."

That's one answer. I (somewhat facetiously) gestured to another one when I suggested, on Facebook, that Obama made his public declaration because he'd read the brilliant Onion satire in which Obama reportedly chastized the sitting president for continuing to hedge on the subject:

"President Obama's inability to simply state whether he's for or against gay marriage is unacceptable," Obama said during a spirited 30-minute address in which he sharply criticized the president for failing time and again to articulate his beliefs. "This nonsense where he says his views are 'evolving' isn't going to cut it anymore. It's patronizing and it's wrong."

Maybe he decided that everyone knows he supports same-sex marriage anyway, and they were reading his silence as nothing more than political expediency. And maybe he didn't want to turn voters off by looking like nothing but a political animal--and so, being the consummate political animal that he is, he did what would make him appear less of a political animal.

Maybe so. But here's another possibility. Maybe he heard the results of the North Carolina vote and felt disheartened by the continued willingness of so many Americans to write discrimination into the law, and even into their state constitutions. Maybe President Obama really believes that it is unjust to systematically exclude one minority group from access to a meaningful, rights-bestowing and life-enriching legal institution that is available to the majority. And maybe the North Carolina decision was the catalyst that helped him to rise above considerations of politics, at least in that historic moment, to do what's right.

Political cynics and Obama opponents may scoff at the suggestion, but perhaps the president acted in a moment of conscience. Maybe he realized that he did have something to lose by remaining evasive on the subject. Not votes, but his integrity.


  1. I think your conclusion is right. I also feel people working for equality do make a difference with their stories ... with living their lives out loud in a sense ... it is hard not to embrace marriage equality when you see loving couples and loving families daily. It is so important to live authentic lives and share your truth for all to see.

  2. For all the good feeling, I would suggest that some of the calculus was money. This move opens up the spigots for a great deal of money from the base and gay-friendly sources. This is the time in the money race to make these kinds of moves. The money-base was threatening to be substantially more apathetic this time around, and he has apparently lost the financier-hedge fund base that is in some kind of snit about being under-appreciated.

  3. Burk--You're right that, espeicially in politics, one can never rule out monay as part of the calculus. And human motivations are almost always mixed. But I have a suspicion that conscience was part of it in this case--that the timing in relation to North Carolina was no accident, but that the NC vote served as a kind of moral catalyst. But, of course, that's a contestable intuition (of the more conventional sort than the philosophical species of intuition we more typically wrangle about on this blog).

  4. I was thinking along the same lines, and I hope that is the motivation behind his statement. I would then ask however, why couldn't he express his opinion in that way, more strongly, and directly linking it to the North Carolina vote, and to those who were disheartened by it? Or maybe that is what he did do, just with words tempered by the political calculus as well.

  5. Based on this CNN report, it seems as if the timing of Obama's announcement had more to do with Biden's off-the-cuff support of same-sex marriage last week than the NC vote--although I wouldn't rule out the NC vote impacting the choice of what day to make the announcement on.

    Also, the report offers at least some additional evidence that an important motivator for the announcement, if not its precise timing, was genuine moral conviction.