Although they talk a lot about “leadership,” politicians typically prefer not to do much leading. Rather than starting parades, they like to wait until one gets rolling and then jump out in front of it and pretend to be the drum major.But last week we saw a rare instance of actual leadership by an American politician – and at the highest level of the game. On Wednesday, President Obama announced that he personally believes Americans of the same sex should be allowed to marry.
The statement was the culmination of a long process of evolution by Obama, who’s gone back and forth on the issue, supporting gay marriage when he first ran for the Senate in 1996 but then backtracking and saying he only supported civil unions for same-sex couples. It probably was hastened by Vice President Joe Biden’s comment on a Sunday talk show that he himself was “comfortable” with same-sex couples having equal marital rights.
How the announcement is going to affect the presidential race is a tough question. Obama reaped a huge and immediate reward in terms of contributions from backers in Hollywood, where support for gay rights is especially strong. But his statement – at least for now – doesn’t seem to be playing so well in the rest of the country.
Americans are deeply divided and ambivalent – not to say confused – on the gay-marriage issue. While a large majority – more than 60% – favors allowing either marriage or civil unions for gay couples, less than 40% favor same-sex marriage. And 50% say they’d support a federal constitutional amendment allowing marriage only between a man and a woman. While many polls have shown support for same-sex marriage trending upward, 30 states – including California, not exactly a right-wing fundamentalist stronghold – have passed legislation banning it.
A New York Times / CBS News poll Monday found that two-thirds of those surveyed thought Obama’s announcement was motivated mainly by politics rather than principle. Most said Obama’s stance wouldn’t affect their vote, but among those who did, almost twice as many said it would make them less likely to vote for him.
The negative fallout is likely to be especially heavy among white blue-collar voters in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are critical to Obama’s chances, and among African-American Democrats, who tend to be more wary of same-sex marriage than their white counterparts. With the economy still shaky and the latest polls showing Obama neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney, every vote is going to count.
However things play out, Obama’s announcement was the right thing to do – and it’s going to be a game-changer. Although it doesn’t have the force of law, having the president of the United States on record as supporting equal marriage rights will forever change the way Americans talk and think about same-sex marriage and the rights of LGBT people in general.
We’re hoping the parade that Obama walked out in front of doesn’t turn out to be a speeding train. But the political risks he took made Obama’s decision even more courageous – and even more deserving of THE GLASS SLIPPER.