Earlier today, Barack Obama gave ABC News the exclusive interview that confirmed what everyone already knew about the president: he’s cool with gay marriage. For months now, Obama has told reporters that he has been “evolving” on the issue, a transparently bogus position that could only mean that he sympathized with the cause but remained politically cautious about an explicit endorsement (even though he already endorsed it back in 1996).
From all the excitement, an obvious question emerged about Obama’s timing: why today, and not before yesterday’s vote in North Carolina that amended the state’s constitution to ban gay marriage? According to a White House official, Obama planned to come out for gay marriage before the 2012 election, but Joe Biden, the man who’s really to thank for today’s news, forced an early end to Obama’s hedging earlier this week when he told David Gregory that he was “absolutely comfortable” with it. Regardless, all Obama said was that he personally supports gay marriage but still believes it’s a states’ rights issue.
So while Obama has undeniably made history as the first sitting US president to endorse gay marriage, aside from the symbolic significance — which, granted, could go a long way in crowding out the bigots in the national conversation — nothing has changed. The inevitability of nationwide gay marriage still lies in the hands of the courts. Meanwhile, Obama is essentially taking the same position, to an extent anyway, as anti-gay zealot Bob Vander Plaats on marriage: that the civil rights of a group of citizens should be left up not to the Constitution but the will of the people.
There are some political risks in Obama’s so-called evolution on gay marriage. The issue doesn’t poll well among African Americans and Latinos, two key Democratic voting demographics, for instance. But there are obvious benefits, too. More people now support gay marriage than oppose it, and Obama’s coming out will likely make progressives less reluctant to donate to his reelection campaign. And would Obama — or Hillary Clinton, or any other left-leaning politician in his position — really want to go down in history as the last Democratic president not to take a stand for the civil rights issue of our time while in office?
Still, it must be said that Obama is without a doubt the most pro-gay rights president in our nation’s history. He’s repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act, signed groundbreaking hate crimes legislation, improved hospital visitation and housing rights for the LGBT community, and expanded the community’s access to health care, among other things.
But let’s not pretend that Obama’s coming out marked any significant shift in his administration’s commitment to LGBT rights. The president should be commended for the progress he’s made throughout his time in office, but today’s news would have been of far greater import had he insisted that gay marriage is a fundamental civil right not to be demeaned by being left to a popular vote. The position he took — whether or not he truly believes in it, and whether or not it’s a politically savvy move — is an endorsement of yesterday’s anti-gay vote in North Carolina, and it is wrong. Obama has yet to fully evolve.