World, Politics

Obama: Out of the political closet and into the 2012 race

By J Brooks Spector 14 May 2012

After years of letting his views on same-sex marriage evolve, Barack Obama announced his personal acceptance of such unions in a quickly-arranged interview on US national television. And the moment his announcement broke, Republican – as well as Democratic – political strategists began to speculate how this astonishing moment might affect the 2012 presidential election. J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates how it all may play out.

Before Obama aired his evolved views, his vice president, Joe Biden, stated on the Sunday television public affairs programme Meet the Press that he supported gay marriage. It may have seemed a sudden development. But in his own TV appearance, Obama explained his views as evolving slowly out of conversations with his children and friends, as well as his observation of stable, gay relationships amongst his own White House staffers.

Obama’s defining moment came when he told ABC News’ Robin Roberts, “I have to tell you that over the course of several years, as I have talked to friends and family and neighbours, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married”.

Same-sex marriage is one of the hot-button issues in American social values politics. The last eruption – at least before the president’s own TV announcement – came when North Carolina rejected approval for same-sex marriage in a highly public referendum. Six other states and the District of Columbia have approved same-sex marriages. California, after initially approving such unions, has reversed course by law. Accordingly, the question of same-sex marriage is now on its way to the US Supreme Court. Marriage laws are determined at the state level in America, and, in recent years, the national treatment of such relationships has become an uneven patchwork. This November alone, the issue will be on the ballot in at least four states, including Maryland, where the state legislature recently approved gay marriage. On the other hand, including North Carolina, 30 states have banned gay marriage in their constitutions.

This patchwork clearly has a constitutional angle, under the “full faith and credit” clause of the US Constitution. This means that a contract entered into in one state should be treated as valid in another. A straightforward reading of Article IV, Section 1 of the US Constitution indicates that same-sex marriage should be treated the same way as a lease or sales contract, if not for the so-called public policy rule.

Two cases carry particular constitutional weight. One is in California and stems from some 18,000 same-sex marriages, where the parties obtained marriage licenses before 2008’s state ban on such unions. The second case is in Massachusetts, where gays and lesbians can legally marry but have been ineligible for the federal benefits of marriage. In this case, seventeen married or widowed men and women are suing for benefits, having previously won a 2010 lower court ruling which is being appealed by authorities.

While the issue may actually reach the court this fall before the election, when the Supreme Court would actually issue a decision (and how broad it would be) is still unclear at this point.

Although Barack Obama was never a public proponent of same-sex marriage, he was never really much of a hard-line opponent of it either. In fact, some six years ago, Obama wrote that, as a Christian, he believed he needed to remain open to the possibility that his reluctance to support gay marriage was misguided. More recently, he telegraphed the likelihood of a conversion by saying his views were evolving, even though he had pulled back from a full endorsement of that position – a stance that continued to rankle the important gay constituency. Still, “evolving” had been a far cry from “support.” For some at least, this calibrated ambivalence had looked rather more like political expediency than a subtle depiction of principle.

But, after Biden apparently jumped the gun on his senior, Obama was facing an entire campaign season of questions – from the media, in debates with Mitt Romney, and from his would-be supporters – as to why he and his running mate were on different sides of this important, socially compelling issue. And this, in turn, would put him in the position of being unable to pin the label on Mitt Romney as the politically expedient candidate for 2012. Moreover, it didn’t hurt that recent news stories depicting Romney as a high-school tormentor of fellow students who seemed to be gay would now contrast Obama’s reaching out for greater inclusively on the marriage front.

On the other hand, the Obama statement does cause a new problem for the Democrats. Previously they had selected Charlotte, North Carolina for their national presidential convention in August. Now they will have a president and vice president – along with substantial numbers of the rest of the party – supporting a policy the citizens of North Carolina have just rejected in a high-profile, state-wide referendum. At the minimum, this may be an embarrassment in the media. At worst, it might mean the convention would play host to ugly-ish, duelling demonstrations – pro and con – over same-sex marriage. At an otherwise dull, predictable convention, such demonstrations could become the story of the convention, rather than its inevitable selection of the incumbents as the party’s candidates for president and vice president. Not good, that.

Of course, the president’s announcement does not simply spell gloom and doom for the Democrats. In fact, if public opinion polls, political strategists and the commentariat are right, Obama may well have gained a net positive from his announcement, following the final evolution of his views. The polls all say his handling of international security issues carry substantial weight with the public, while social issues – including same-sex marriage – only slightly register in surveys evaluating the most important issues in the 2012 campaign for voters. The pole position remains occupied by economic concerns – just as it has been since 2008.

Moreover, Democratic and Republican pollsters alike have been finding an accelerating acceptance of gay marriage in any case. A recent Gallup poll found that among 18- to 34-year-olds, some 70% accept same-sex marriage. Even among 55+ year olds, support stands at around 55%, and analysts say a majority of independent voters also support gay marriage. Numbers like these may help explain why the Obama administration previously eschewed enforcing at federal level the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act, which specified marriage as an act between a man and a woman.

In fact, the real difficulty for Obama may come with specific groups of voters that will be decisive only if results in certain key battleground states are close. This would presumably include rural, socially conservative Democrats in the southern states of Virginia and North Carolina; white blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” in the industrial Midwest heartland; and church-going black voters in the south – although the latter group is likely to fall in line with Obama by the time the election rolls around. A recent White House memo explains how the Obama campaign hopes to position this question as a religious issue, so as to confirm his appeal to religious African Americans. As the memo explains, “In the end, the values that the president cares most deeply about is how we treat other people. The president and first lady are both practicing Christians, and obviously this position may be considered to put them at odds with the views of others, but when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule: Treat others the way you’d want to be treated.”

In any case, according to recent polling data, in a head-to-head match-up against Romney, about 81% of blacks who said they were against gay marriage also said they would vote for Obama, compared with about 5.4% who would back Romney. And around 90% of blacks who already favour gay marriage said they would vote for Obama, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling taken in mid-April to 3 May.

As veteran Obama watcher John Heilemann argues in the current issue of New York magazine, as Obama was about to take the plunge, “a rough consensus eventually emerged that, in strictly political terms, the upsides narrowly outweighed the downsides. … With Chicago [the Obama campaign headquarters’ home base] terrified by the almost certain prospect of being outspent by the cumulative forces of the Romney campaign and its conservative Super-PAC allies, and with Wall Street having largely dried up as a source of largesse, the campaign has turned increasingly to three sources of big-donor dollars: Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the gay community.” Accordingly, here is a further upside: a new flow of campaign contributions from the gay community eager to support this new announcement by Obama, balancing losses from other giver communities and counterbalancing those right-leaning Super PACs.

So far, Republican candidate Romney has been reluctant to be dragged back to the social values battlefield his candidacy finally managed to extricate itself from once Rick Santorum dropped out of the nomination race. As the Financial Times argued recently, “some Democrats see Mr Obama’s move as part of a broader strategy to paint Mr Romney – and his party – as extremists who are not only anti-gay, but anti-immigrant and anti-woman. That goal was – fairly or unfairly – helped this week after an article in the Washington Post said that Mr Romney bullied a classmate at his prep school who was believed to be gay.”

But if the conservative social values activists still hope to use same-sex marriage as a club to bludgeon Obama, the Democratic candidate’s team say they would actually welcome such a decision. Heilemann adds that Obama’s team is arguing, “given how far outside the mainstream Romney’s positions are on gay rights broadly, it would give the president yet another chance to paint him as a figure of the past and Obama as an avatar of modernity.”

If elections with a sitting president are either referendums on the incumbent’s successes or a thumbs-up or -down on a challenger’s ideas or competing narrative, running counter to a broad, historic shift in public attitudes on same-sex marriage seems an unlikely way to contribute to Mitt Romney’s success in November. So far, at least, Romney and his supporters have been walking away from chastising Obama’s views on same-sex marriage. In Romney’s most recent speech, at the stoutly fundamentalist Christian-supporting Liberty University in Virginia, he avoided attacking Obama over his pivot towards same-sex marriage – even before an ultra-friendly audience.

In fact, there is still another challenge for the Republicans from Obama’s announcement. On television, Obama carefully explained his statement was a personal view rather than a tangible legislative proposal. Moreover, he said the regulation of marriages remained a state-by-state prerogative. Arguing for state primacy on such laws would seem to be a quintessential Republican position of limited federal government, rather than some kind of Democratic plan to push a secret, radical social agenda. How, precisely, Republicans will be able to come out uniformly opposed to state decisions in favour of same-sex marriage, even as they support state-level decisions in all other areas of social policy, would seem to be awkward contradiction to the rest of their policy agenda.

And so in the manner of Napoleon, who explained that while he liked his generals to be great warriors, the quality he valued most was their ability to have luck, Obama seems to have gone beyond direct competition into that kind of luck as well. The question, now, is whether he will continue to possess it straight through the campaign. DM

Read more:

  • Gay Wedding Crasher – Joe Biden’s blunder made Barack Obama tie the knot sooner than planned – but he still may get to live happily ever after in New York magazine.
  • Obama sets social issues trap for Romney at the Financial Times.
  • Obama supports gay marriage: Historic switch carries risks at the Christian Science Monitor.
  • Obama places big bet on gay marriage issue at the Reuters website.
  • Gay marriage moves closer to Supreme Court at the Reuters website.
  • Top GOP Pollster to GOP: Reverse On Gay Issues (Andrew Sullivan’s column) at the Daily Beast.
  • Will California Gay Marriages be Legal in Other States? At the Free Legal Advice/ website.
  • Gay marriage Punctuated equilibrium Barack Obama makes up his mind on gay marriage at the Economist.
  • Romney urges grads to honor family commitments at the AP website.
  • GOP: Economy tops gay marriage as campaign issue at the AP.
  • North Carolina a political headache for Democrats at the AP.
  • Obama basks again in Hollywood glory, but at cost? At the AP.
  • Many blacks shrug off Obama’s new view on gays at the AP.
  • Why Gay Rights May Be President Obama’s Biggest Legacy at the New Republic (a column by Jonathan Rauch).
  • Winning the News Cycle, Losing the Race, a column by Ross Douthat at the New York Times.
  • Weary warriors favor Obama at Reuters.
  • For Obama, It’s About the Children (column by Kenji Yoshino) at the New York Times.
  • Mitt Romney’s prep school classmates recall pranks, but also troubling incidents at the Washington Post.
  • In Gay Marriage Reversal, President Obama Faces Risk on All Sides at Time magazine.
  • US Republican hopeful Romney rejects same-sex marriage at the BBC.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama departs Seattle’s King County International Airport Boeing Field for Los Angeles, aboard Air Force One, May 10, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing.


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