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Why does President Obama Now Support Gay Marriage?

Updated on May 15, 2012

Politics or Principle?

It is hard to be the president. First of all, you have to make important decisions regarding a host of complex issues that you must somehow juggle simultaneously. But even worse than that, virtually everything that you do or say is under constant scrutiny, with a certain percentage of the population attacking you no matter what. And god help you if you ever misspeak or change your mind on some issue. For If you ever express an opinion that contradicts something you may have said 1, 5, 10, or 30 years earlier, you are likely to be characterized as a flip-flopper who either has no consistent ideas or who changes positions in response to the latest opinion polls. I am thankful that I am not judged by or expected to maintain ideas that I may have expressed 20 years ago. In my view, the capacity to change one’s mind is a sign of intellectual sophistication, not of dishonesty or weakness.

So President Obama opened himself up to various forms of criticism when he stated a few days ago that he now supports gay marriage. Some might criticize him for holding a position that is so foolish, untraditional, or immoral. But people who hold various positions on the gay marriage issue can also criticize him for making a decision that may be more about politics than principle. Why did he announce this change in position right now, a position that he openly rejected before the 2008 election? Does he think that this will help him more than it hurts him politically in the months leading up to the 2012 election? In the past few days, I have heard more people talking about the political ramifications of his announcement, both positive and negative, than about the issue of gay marriage itself. Some think that it could hurt him potentially with African-Americans, Latinos, or more socially conservative independents. Others (including myself) argue that social conservatives who view gay marriage as an important issue are unlikely to vote for President Obama anyway, and this new position may galvanize the liberal base more than it motivates the anti-Obama people who had plenty of grievances and drive before the announcement. People find it easier to be motivated, after all, when their party is out of power. (And the fact that Obama is now a socialist, foreign-born Muslim who wants people to turn gay is not much worse than just being a socialist, foreign-born Muslim.)

But is it possible that this announcement is not simply an attempt to score some political points? Maybe the President was being honest when he said that he had “evolved” on this issue, and he has come to see the denial of marriage rights to homosexuals as the denial of a basic human right. Given the uncertainty regarding the political effects of his announcement, this may actually be a rare expression of courage and integrity from the mouth of an American politician. Stranger things, after all, have been known to happen. But in our cynical society that has had so many negative experiences with conniving, inconsistent, spin-doctoring politicians, the skepticism is understandable.

In the end, only the President and those close to him know his real motivations for this announcement. We are not in a position to determine if this was a cold political calculation or an attempt to fight for what is right. And unfortunately for supporters of gay marriage, the President is powerless on his own to alter American marriage laws. Only an act of Congress, which would inevitably be followed by lawsuits and court cases, could bring about some change on the national level. Symbolically, however, the President’s statement still matters. And since Presidents are ultimately judged by their words, actions, and achievements, their motives, which can be very difficult to determine anyway, are essentially irrelevant. If President Obama’s words manage to push this country a little more toward a day when same-sex couples have their relationships recognized in the same manner as heterosexuals, then history will judge him accordingly. And like all groundbreaking movements and legislation that initiated social changes in the past, the particular circumstances that brought about the changes and the motives of all the actors involved will be generally forgotten. The only important question is whether or not you believe that these were changes for the better.


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