Profile in Compulsion

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 9, 2012

As one who has publicly supported same sex marriage since 2003, I congratulate President Obama on finally completing his evolution on the subject, and getting to a position both Dick Cheney and I have held to for quite a while now.

But let’s not pretend that the president wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming into the debate. His evolution would likely not  be complete if it weren’t for the fact that Joe Biden and Arne Duncan forced his hand by affirming their own support for same-sex marriage. The president very likely did not want to talk about this issue, given his concern–along with that of his campaign–that coming out in support of same sex marriage might anger some moderates and independents, and might cause the president to lose traditionally red states that he happened to win in 2008. As a consequence, in the aftermath of the Biden and Duncan statements, the White House tried its absolute best to convince the media and the public that there was nothing earth-shattering about the statements, that there was nothing to see here, and that all of us should just move along.

That position quickly became untenable, of course, after Jay Carney, the White House press secretary was nearly laughed out of the briefing room by reporters who insisted on knowing whether the Biden and Duncan statements reflected the president’s own beliefs, and who were properly disbelieving when Carney tried to convince them that the Biden and Duncan statements were consistent with the president’s past comments on the issue of same sex marriage. It quickly became clear to anyone with a brain stem that the president supported same sex marriage, but that he very much did not want to talk about his support in public. Team Obama’s attempt to walk a fine line on this issue failed to fly, and for a time, gave the president the worst of both political worlds; he was reaping no benefit whatsoever from his previously sub rosa support of same sex marriage, while at the same time courting the anger of social conservatives opposed to same sex marriage, and gay and liberal donors who threatened to withhold campaign donations because of the president’s previously and purposefully opaque stance on the issue.

So Barack Obama was backed into a corner, and forced to come out in favor of same sex marriage. Again, I applaud him for doing so; as a straight man who will never face societal opprobrium for choosing whom to marry, I would want same sex couples to be free from such opprobrium as well.

But let’s not pretend that this was a moment in which Barack Obama strode to the mountaintop and courageously called for equal rights for same sex couples on his own initiative. That did not happen. The president was pushed and dragged to the mountaintop. That kind of thing happens a lot in civil rights struggles, so it may not be the world’s biggest deal. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the fact that it happened in this instance.

There will be a temptation on the right to use the president’s position in order to rally opposition even more strongly against him. That course of action should not be taken. I write that not just as a proponent of same sex marriage, but also as someone who wants to see Mitt Romney elected president and who believes that the economy continues to be Romney’s best issue. Romney would do well to get the discussion back to the economy as quickly as possible. Team Obama obviously wants to talk about anything but the economy, and to the extent that they were skittish about having the president come out in favor of same sex marriage, that skittishness is likely offset at least somewhat by their happiness at pushing the economy off the front page for at least a little while. Romney should work to ensure that it returns to the forefront of voters minds immediately.

But before we leave this issue, a final question: Given the president’s new position, and the fact that just the night before, North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment stating that marriage should solely be between a man and a woman, does Team Obama still support having this year’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte? Because a lot of liberals don’t. It remains to be seen whether the Obama campaign will back up the president’s words with the symbolic action of moving the convention, or whether it thinks that North Carolina’s electoral votes are more important than meaningful symbolism.

Previous post:

Next post: