President Obama has come out in favor of marriage equality. While this announcement is a long time coming, and one can fairly be skeptical of why it took the President so long to make this endorsement, one cannot overlook that this is unprecedented: No President in American history has ever been in favor of marriage equality while in office. Even Bill Clinton waited until he’d been out of office a decade before he publicly stated his support for same-sex marriage.
Let us not delude ourselves that any great change on the issue will take place anytime soon. Indeed, President Obama’s announcement came one day after voters in North Carolina voted a venal anti-marriage amendment into their state constitution. The President has also stated that he believes the issue is best left to the states to decide for themselves, which is the most realistic approach for now but not in the long term. Repealing DOMA is simply not possible with the current House of Representatives. Passing a bill affirming same-sex marriage across the board in all 50 states would be difficult even with Democratic control of both the House and Senate. Fact is, often Congress is behind the people on civil rights issues – not ahead. Both bodies skew older and whiter than the populace as a whole – and support for civil rights is generational. In the short term, Obama’s announcement amounts to little tangible change, although the symbolic importance is considerable and may help change attitudes in some segments of the Democratic party that are not LGBT friendly. Ultimately, it will probably be up to the Supreme Court to resolve this issue, which is all the more reason to support Obama – not just in the ballot box, but in the campaign preceding election day.
To be sure, Obama’s decision to announce his support for marriage equality (he reportedly decided to support it months ago, and was looking for the right time to announce) is a gamble. It will certainly serve to fire-up the opposition – not that they were going to vote for him anyway. It will also ignite enthusiasm along his left flank, which has felt disaffected by his lack of action on a range of items from Guantanamo, prosecution of members of the Bush administration for war crimes, pursuit of single-payer healthcare – and until now same sex marriage. Many on the left were contemplating staying home on Election day – and one’s core base should never be taken for granted. That’s a lesson Obama had to painfully learn in 2010. So, Obama’s announcement is not an unwarranted or unprecedented gamble.
Travel back in time with me to 1948.
The Democrats, who had been in the White House since 1933, had been punished in the 1946 mid-term elections – with Republicans gaining control of both houses of Congress. Harry Truman was an unpopular President, with an approval rating of 39% in May of 1948. The Cold War was heating up, with those on Truman’s left accusing him of being a warmonger, while Republicans called him “soft” on Communism. Truman’s executive order desegregating the military and endorsement of a broad-based civil rights bill prompted Southern Democrats to break with the party and walk out of the Democratic National Convention – soon thereafter creating the Dixiecrat party with Strom Thurmond as their Presidential candidate. (Thurmond became a Republican in 1964.) Left-wingers had already created their own party: The Progressive party, with former Vice-President Henry Wallace at the head of the ticket.
Under these circumstances, no one thought Truman would win in 1948 – save for Truman himself. While the Republican nominee, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey ran a safe campaign and spoke in broad platitudes, Truman spoke bluntly of the issues facing the country and how he would stand up for working Americans – whatever their color. Truman reminded Americans that they were all in the same boat, and would sink or swim together. More to the point, Truman cautioned that electing Dewey would mean a return to an unregulated economy and the “boom and bust cycle just like we had in the 1920s, that will end with a crash – which in the long run will do nobody any good but the Communists”.
Political polling was in its infancy then, and pollsters closed up shop weeks before the election - believing Americans had already made up their minds and would elect Dewey. Truman had the last laugh on election day. He had stood his ground, spoken bluntly, and won anyway by swinging enough undecideds to him.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Obama endorsed same-sex marriage for reasons of politics or reasons of principle. Nor did it matter whether Truman desegregated the military and recognized Israel out of conviction or to court African-American and Jewish voters. Truman’s and Obama’s respective actions moved history forward. Even if Obama loses the 2012 election, he can take comfort that he was on the right side of history.