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.