Barack Obama, Same-Sex Marriage, And Political Expediency

Barack Obama's position on same-sex marriage continues to "evolve," along with the polls.

Barack Obama’s position on same-sex marriage has always been something of an enigma. He said during the 2008 campaign, and many times since then, that he believes marriages should be between one man and one woman. At the same time, of course, his Administration led the fight to repeal the policy that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, and his Justice Department has taken the position that Section Three of the Defense Of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and is refusing to defend that provision in Court. In 2010, his Administration enacted regulations that expanded the right of same-sex partners to visit patients in hospitals under Federal regulation. More recently, the President has told reporters that his position on same-sex marriage is “evolving.”

To be honest, there’s always been an undercurrent of suspicion that the President and the Administration has been playing a bit of cynical political game here, that the President really does support same-sex marriage but that he’s unwilling to say so publicly because it would not be politically expedient. It makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose. Even with the polls moving ever more in the direction of public support, same-sex marriage remains a hot button social issue and is likely to for many years to come. Given that there are a number of other issues that a President wants to advocate, many of which are arguably more important, perhaps it doesn’t make sense to willingly subject oneself to the political onslaught that would come from coming out in public with a position that is still controversial and likely to energize ones opponents. Of course, if that’s an accurate description of what’s going on here, one has to have a pretty cynical view of the world to sacrifice your personal beliefs on the altar of political expediency and it’s not exactly a profile in courage.

With all this in mind, most analysts have agreed that it would be highly unlikely for the President to announce that he’s changed his mind on this issue before the Presidential election. Nonetheless, Greg Sargent reports that the possibility of doing just that is being discussed among top Democrats and White House officials:

Obama’s top political advisers have held serious discussions with leading Democrats about the upsides and downsides of coming out for gay marriage before the fall election, a Democratic strategist who has discussed these matters directly with Obama’s campaign inner circle tells me.

This does not mean that it will happen, and there are plenty of reasons to assume it won’t. Indeed, it would be political malpractice if Obama’s top advisers didn’t discuss every permutation and possibility, no matter how far fetched. However, the fact that it has been discussed seriously at high levels means it’s not out of the question.

Those advisers are convinced that Obama will make this call based on his gut, and ultimately without regard to the fine-grained political analysis of the situation, the source says.

Some top Democrats have privately advised Obama’s inner circle that such a move could energize Democrats far beyond the gay community. The discussions have centered on Obama’s successful repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and how it has signaled that major advances on gay rights energize young voters and other progressive Democrats,by helping recapture the historic and forward-looking aura of 2008, the source says.

“This would help in terms of reinvigorating some of the excitement from 2008,” the source says, characterizing the discussions. “It’s not just about gay people. There’s an upside with the progressive community and young people in general. Obama’s advisers are in listening mode.”

Now there is admittedly some value in thinking through the political consequences of what would be a major policy shift. How and when you announce a major change in position on a controversial issue is important, and obviously ought to be preplanned rather than just being done on an ad hoc basis. But it doesn’t seem to me that that’s what Sargent is talking about here, he’s talking about Democratic advisers speculating that it would be politically expedient for the purposes of this election for the President to announce that he supports same-sex marriage. Just as it was, arguably, politically expedient for him to say he opposed it when he was running for Senator and President.

As the highlighted portion above shows, Democratic advisers seem to be looking at this idea not because coming out in favor of same-sex marriage would be the right thing to do, but because it would energize the voters that flocked to Obama in 2008, energize the campaign, and be politically expedient. As someone who’s been in favor of same-sex marriage from the time I first became aware of the issue, I guess it would be nice to have the President on our side but I can’t help but think that his endorsement would be based on the polls and not on principles, which makes this particular part of Sargent’s piece rather amusing:

Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt declined to confirm any internal discussions.

“There’s been a lot of uninformed speculation in the news on this,” he said. “The President and the President alone will come to a decision. From allowing hospital visitation rights for gay partners to repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, President Obama has done more to advance equal rights for gays and lesbians than any other President — a record we intend to highlight.”

Indeed, the source says that Obama’s top advisers are convinced he will make this call on his own. “They don’t think he’s going to make this decision based on the polling,” the source says. “He’s just going to make it. They do not know at the end of the day where he’s going to end up.”

Call me a cynic, but I don’t believe it for a second. If this were all about what’s in the President’s gut, then why the need to hold internal party discussions about how this could energize the campaign? If it’s the gut that’s talking, you change your mind, you come up with a plan to roll out the announcement, and you take the slings and arrows that might result. Because standing up for something that’s right means you don’t check the polls first.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2012, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis

    The President has never been one to stand on principle. He occasionally does the right thing for political reasons, but that’s been the way he’s played since Harvard.

  2. Kylopod says:

    To be honest, there’s always been an undercurrent of suspicion that the President and the Administration has been playing a bit of cynical political game here, that the President really does support same-sex marriage but that he’s unwilling to say so publicly because it would not be politically expedient.

    It isn’t mere speculation. Obama is on record having supported SSM back in 1996. The following TNR article provides a helpful timeline of his “evolution” away from this position:

    http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/77120/what-does-obama-really-think-about-gay-marriage-telling-timeline

    If you take Obama’s stated positions at face value, then he went from being for SSM (long before it was a remotely popular position) to being against it. That’s very hard to believe. I could see someone growing more conservative on this issue if they underwent some kind of religious conversion. But Obama’s conversion happened in the 1980s, and besides, the UCC is one of the more gay-friendly denominations around. (They officially endorsed SSM in 2005.) Nah. If you examine TNR’s timeline that I link to, it’s pretty clear he moved from SSM to civil unions as a political strategy. That’s more or less what he said in 2004. Only when he started running for president did he begin to say he was actually against SSM. Even then, he has been pretty consistently ASSMINO (Against Same Sex Marriage In Name Only): he has done nothing to stand in the way of its passage, and he has mostly opposed policies that aim to stop gay marriage, such as Prop 8 and DOMA.

  3. al-Ameda says:

    I think that Obama personally supports same-sex marriage, however he finds it extremely expedient to take a so-called middle ground by not explicitly supporting it, while doing nothing to impede support for Gay marriage.

  4. J-Dub says:

    Personally, I don’t see a problem with chipping away at this issue until homosexuals eventually have the same rights as heterosexuals. I don’t know that it requires a sledgehammer approach. President Obama has done his part by helping to push the movement forward. Courts have done their part, young people have done their part to reject pointless bigotry, and old people have done their part, mostly by dying off.

  5. MBunge says:

    Whether the President’s views on same-sex marriage are expedient or cynical, shouldn’t the thing that matters most be whether or not his approach to the issue has been effective? Staying out of it and allowing the issue to be handled at the state level appears to have been a masterpiece of political judgment, benefiting both the President and the same sex marriage movement.

    Mike

  6. c.red says:

    Or, for something completely different, his words, position and history are almost exactly what would be expected from someone that is not entirely comfortable with same sex marriage, but realizes they don’t have any logical reason for that bigotry. And also realizes it may be the best way forward and what his supporters expect from him.

    Which is pretty much how I took his stance on the subject from the beginning. Obama is fairly forthright in his words when you don’t try to second guess them by looking for what he “really means” or look at them through a partisan lens. Sure, he is still a politician and spins things, but most of the confusion about wat he says comes from the listener, not from the speaker.

  7. Ben Wolf says:

    @MBunge: No one is arguing the President hasn’t done good things in regard to gay rights. We’re just discussing his (stated) change of position. I’m honestly unsure of what he or his advisors thought they were gaining from pretending to oppose same-sex marriage. My guess is they misjudged the high level of public support for it and fell behind the curve, so rather than make a new statement in support of same-sex marriage (which would have looked like a flip-flop) they quietly threw support behind state initiatives.

  8. Modulo Myself says:

    I guarantee the last thing Mitt Romney wants to be doing in September is to have to speak about the sorry plight of the vast number of heteronormative victims of gay marriage, all while Maggie Gallagher nods in the background and three million anti-gay slurs go off in the distance.

  9. JohnMcC says:

    In thinking of “political expediency” on the issue of marriage equality, why do I think of Karl Rove before I think of Barack Obama? I can’t understand it!

  10. Septimius says:

    @JohnMcC:

    Maybe because Karl Rove was a political operative and Barack Obama is the leader of the free world.

  11. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Florida and Ohio both recently voted to ban same-sex marriages by identical margins of 62-38. Even the loopy liberal media would have a hard time spinning those results as “closely divided” electorates, or that “slim majorities” there are opposed to same-sex marriages. Ergo the chances of Obama coming out on this issue, excuse the pun, nearly are the same as Obama campaigning this fall in support of Obamacare in Ohio and Florida. That is to say, those chances are slim to none and slim just left town.

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    If it’s the gut that’s talking, you change your mind, you come up with a plan to roll out the announcement, and you take the slings and arrows that might result. Because standing up for something that’s right means you don’t check the polls first.

    Doug once again demonstrates his political savvy. His idea of political strategy is the frontal attack a la Verdun. FDR is not generally considered the second or third greatest US president because the frontal attack was his political modus operandii.

  13. Kit says:

    one has to have a pretty cynical view of the world to sacrifice your personal beliefs on the altar of political expediency

    No, rather one has to put aside adolescent beliefs in proud, uncompromising integrity and instead recognize that politics, like life, is the art of the possible. No politician can accomplish anything if he squanders his political capital indulging in hissy fits every time some personal belief takes a ding, just as no lawyer could long stay in business if he told all prospective clients exactly what he thought of them.

    Only a cynic would focus on an economy in meltdown, two wars and healthcare when the flames of culture war are left untended, right? Why quietly advance some minor policy by a couple of steps when one could trumpet one’s convictions and set progress back by a generation? I wonder if you judge your doctor by the same principles as you do your politicians.

    Once, those who accomplished great deeds were honored and their faults happily whitewashed away; now half the country prefers the little men who can most comfortably squeeze into an impotent ideological purity against which their smallest actions will be measured by the rubes back home.

  14. James says:

    Call me a cynic, but I don’t believe it for a second.

    You Doug Mataconis, cynical? Never. More to the substance: I am unsure what power the President invokes to simply “legalize gay marriage” by fiat.

    Now, I am overjoyed that we agree on the issue, Doug. But you’re falling back on your usual shallow analysis; attempting to score points against your political opponents rather than investigating the deeper issue of our contemporary political condition.

    Is it a failure that our nation’s gay men and women are forced to have their fundamental civil rights – their basic dignity – batted around like the political football it is? Yes, of course! But that is a failure of our very political vocabulary. Cheap demagoguery against political minorities has a lamentable amount of currency – especially among conservative constituencies. Political capital is a finite resource, and the battle you pick on one issue is one you cannot make on another. I think the president understands that more than anyone.

    Lastly: I am not interested in defending Obama’s nakedly craven stance on same-sex marriage. It’s abominable, and I hope he knows that. However, this president has done more for LGBT rights in his first term of office than Bill Clinton did in his entire presidency. That should count for something.

  15. James says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Florida and Ohio both recently voted to ban same-sex marriages by identical margins of 62-38.

    I’m sure if Florida and Ohio got the chance to vote on interracial marriages in 1967, you’d find similar results.

    Popular sentiments on the basic dignity of political minorities is absolutely immaterial to the legal validity of their civil rights.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    No, rather one has to put aside adolescent beliefs in proud, uncompromising integrity and instead recognize that politics, like life, is the art of the possible.

    You ask far too much of a libertarian…

  17. An Interested Party says:

    Popular sentiments on the basic dignity of political minorities is absolutely immaterial to the legal validity of their civil rights.

    Shhhhh!!!! We’re not supposed to equate civil rights for black people with civil rights for gay people…the two are just such totally different things, don’t ya know…

  18. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Incidentally, for those who might be curious, and not to beat this issue senseless, but
    here are the results of recent direct voter referendums to ban gay marriages in various crucial states for this fall’s general election:

    Florida: Gay marriages banned, 62-38.
    Ohio: Gay marriages banned, 62-38.
    Missouri: Gay marriages banned, 71-29.
    Michigan: Gay marriages banned, 59-41.
    Colorado: Gay marriages banned, 56-44.
    Virginia: Gay marriages banned, 57-43.
    Wisconsin: Gay marriages banned, 59-41.
    Arizona: Gay marriages banned, 56-44.

    You’d have a better chance of winning the Kentucky Derby with a three-legged mule than betting on Obama to announce this fall to the general public that he does in fact support same-sex marriages. QED.

    That all said, believe it or not, I support the right of any state to define marriage in whatever way the state sees fit. If New York wants gays and lesbians to be allowed to marry each other then more power to New York. Domestic relations laws are the very essence of a state-by-state issue. The Feds as I see it need not be involved. With one caveat, however.

    Let’s say two gay men get married in New York and then retire to Florida, which as indicated above overwhelmingly voted to ban recognition of same-sex marriages. One of them dies intestate and then there’s a contest to determine intestate succession of valuable property. A son from a prior hetero marriage challenges the standing of the surviving spouse. The marriage was legal and recognized in New York. As a matter of the state constitution of the place of domicile at death, however, it’s illegal and not recognized.

    Does Florida in this example have to enforce marriage rights of the surviving spouse against the express terms of its own state constitution? Similar questions inevitably will arise in connection with such items as will contests, beneficiary designation contests, survivorship benefits litigation, property settlements, child support and alimony, visitation rights, custody disputes, partitions, etc. With that all said perhaps having one single national law on this issue isn’t such a horrible idea. Food for thought, is all.

  19. James says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Let’s say two gay men get married in New York and then retire to Florida, which as indicated above overwhelmingly voted to ban recognition of same-sex marriages.

    Florida had standing Anti-miscegenation statues until 1967, when the (unanimous) Loving v. Virginia opinion was written by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Justice Warren wrote that:

    Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival…. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.

    Your citations of polls and referendums are meaningless.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    That all said, believe it or not, I support the right of any state to define marriage in whatever way the state sees fit.

    Oh really? So Mississippi and Alabama should have the right to reinstitute anti-miscegenation laws, eh? State’s rights and all of that…

    Similar questions inevitably will arise in connection with such items as will contests, beneficiary designation contests, survivorship benefits litigation, property settlements, child support and alimony, visitation rights, custody disputes, partitions, etc.

    Thanks for making the argument for why the Feds should get involved…do you realize how often you contradict yourself?

  21. Jenos Idanian says:

    It’s not complicated. All you have to do is simply take Obama at his word.

    1) Obama has consistently and repeatedly stated his opposition to gay marriage, while making allowances for civil unions.

    2) Obama has consistently and repeatedly stressed his strong Christian faith.

    3) Obama spent 20-odd years as a major member of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

    4) Opposition to gay marriage is very, very strong in Black churches — they were a major factor in the recent vote on the subject in Maryland.

  22. Robert in SF says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    I support the right of any state to define marriage in whatever way the state sees fit….
    With that all said perhaps having one single national law on this issue isn’t such a horrible idea.

    @An Interested Party:

    Thanks for making the argument for why the Feds should get involved

    /layman’s mode on/

    Here’s why I don’t understand about all the legal issues around marriage equality and the Federal role….doesn’t the Federal Constitution have a clause that basically says each State must recognize contracts originated legally in other States? The full faith and credit clause? Isn’t that the clause that allows for first cousins to get married in some States, and come back to the home State and have it recognized, even though it’s not legal to *get* married in that State? The same Clause that allows those under their own State’s legal age of consent for marriage to do the same thing?

    The Constitution was the first and only role the Federal government had for quite some time about marriage….until DOMA. Then the Federal government decided that this, and only this, contract was one a State could void and fail to recognize from another State, despite the Constitution’s clear mandate that the States had to…otherwise, as you can see from above, what a mess when you have interstate travel or residency changes….

    Good thing this didn’t affect the incorporation regulations, or you could one State allowing lawsuits against the various big businesses that Delaware doesn’t allow….

    /layman’s mode off/

  23. @Robert in SF:

    Doesn’t the Federal Constitution have a clause that basically says each State must recognize contracts originated legally in other States? The full faith and credit clause? Isn’t that the clause that allows for first cousins to get married in some States, and come back to the home State and have it recognized, even though it’s not legal to *get* married in that State? The same Clause that allows those under their own State’s legal age of consent for marriage to do the same thing?

    To give you the Standard Lawyers ResponseTM, yes and no.

    Yes, the FF&C clause does generally require each state to recognize the laws and legal actions of its sister states, including marriages. There are exceptions though. It’s generally the case that no state is required to recognize a law or action that violates its own public policy.

    To pick a hypothetical example, let’s say some state decided it was okay for adult non-blood related family members to marry. In general, the public policy exception would allow another state to refuse to recognize the validity of that marriage. Something similar could happen if a state decided to drastically lower the age of consent.

    To pick a real world example, gambling is illegal here in Virginia. However, many Virginians travel to Atlantic City to gamble in the casinos. If someone from Virginia runs up a huge line of credit at Bally’s the casino would not be able to sue them in a Virginia court because the underlying contract was for an action that is illegal in Virginia (even though it’s legal in the state where the contract was executed). However, if the casino sues in New Jersey and gets a judgement there, they can bring the New Jersey judgment to Virginia and Virginia courts will be required to enforce it regardless of the nature of the underlying contract.

    The other fly in the ointment here is Section Two of DOMA, which provides:

    No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship.

    Congress bases its authority to pass Section Two on the FF&C clause itself:

    Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.

    To day, there has been no court case testing whether Section Two is a proper exercise of Congressional authority under the FF&C clause.

  24. mantis says:

    Lastly: I am not interested in defending Obama’s nakedly craven stance on same-sex marriage. It’s abominable, and I hope he knows that. However, this president has done more for LGBT rights in his first term of office than Bill Clinton did in his entire presidency. That should count for something.

    Yes, it should, and what it does is make his position pretty darn defensible and not particularly abominable. I don’t really understand how you can make the above statement. Have you considered that the president’s position on gay marriage has a very pragmatic purpose and that purpose is to advance equality for LGBT as much as he possibly can? If he were to have taken a full pro-gay marriage position, it would not only have created a nasty polarized debate that would have dominated the discourse, but it would likely have prevented much of the progress that has been made over the past three+ years.

    There are many Democrats and a few Republicans who are interested in greater equality, but like Obama either believe that “marriage” has too many religious implications to make it a viable political path to that equality at this time, or truly believe that marriage should only be among heterosexuals but that everyone should still have the same rights and privileges. They could not have sided with Obama on gay marriage, but they could side with him on DADT repeal, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act, instituting equality in federal housing and employment, to the partners of same-sex foreign service employees, requiring LGBT visitation rights at hospitals, dropping defense of DOMA, extending domestic violence protections to LGBT victims, extending the Family and Medical Leave Act to LGBT couples, and the administration’s extensive and very strong support for LGBT equality abroad.

    The real question for marriage equality advocates is are you willing to trade all of the above progress for a full-throated support for gay marriage? Because that is likely what it would mean. And in the end, the president cannot wave a magic wand and force the states to allow gay marriage. Only the Supreme Court or a constitutional amendment could do that. His position is not abominable, it is pragmatic, and the goal his position supports is progress, and a great deal of progress has been made in a short time because of that.

    The president is a politician, and he knows that politics is the art of the possible. His position is one designed to actually get things done, not one that lets the perfect be the enemy of the good and leaves us with a bitter status quo. He sees the end game, and so should you. Progress, my friend, is not a flash, it’s a slog. Anyone who calls him or herself a progressive would do well to recognize that, and be more pragmatic than idealistic. Idealism tends to excite people, sure, but in a representative democracy such as ours, it also tends to lose. If you wanted the equivalent of a Santorum from the left as president, you wanted a losing president. I prefer the guy who gets stuff done. His name is Barack Obama.

  25. An Interested Party says:

    Obama spent 20-odd years as a major member of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

    It really sticks in some people’s collective craw that Jeremiah Wright couldn’t be fatally tied around the President’s neck…

    @Mantis: Exactly right…just as with previous struggles for civil rights, certain strategies have to be used to ensure success…

  26. Rob in CT says:

    I think it’s highly likely that Obama is fine with the idea of gay marriage, but recognized that such a position would be used as a cudgel against him in national politics, so he came up with his BS “evolving” position. It’s not pleasant.

    I think he sees the same trend we can all see. I think he also sees that most of the fight is at the state level. At the federal level, he’s done some good things (in no small part by not making it into a crusade).

    So I think he’s full of sh*t for obvious political reasons, and yet is doing good things. Ah, politics. Disgusting, innit?

  27. Rob in CT says:

    By the way, the Tsar is probably right about this:

    Florida: Gay marriages banned, 62-38.
    Ohio: Gay marriages banned, 62-38.
    Missouri: Gay marriages banned, 71-29.
    Michigan: Gay marriages banned, 59-41.
    Colorado: Gay marriages banned, 56-44.
    Virginia: Gay marriages banned, 57-43.
    Wisconsin: Gay marriages banned, 59-41.
    Arizona: Gay marriages banned, 56-44.

    You’d have a better chance of winning the Kentucky Derby with a three-legged mule than betting on Obama to announce this fall to the general public that he does in fact support same-sex marriages. QED.

    That comment wasn’t about the validity of gay marriage. It was about the political calculus of Obama’s position. And I think it’s correct. Obama can count electoral votes.