Just when certain progressives thought that President Obama lacked the audacity to lead, he publicly endorsed, in a television interview taped Wednesday, the right of gay Americans to marry. It's a bold shift, especially coming one day after a majority of voters in North Carolina, a key battleground state in this November's elections, supported a measure explicitly limiting marriages and civil unions to heterosexuals. The president has set an important, inclusive policy tone.
At first it seemed that Rick Santorum's and Newt Gingrich's departures from the race pulled the culture wars out the 2012 election, leaving two risk-averse candidates to debate voters' Topic A — the economy. But last week brought the case of Richard Grennell, the openly gay foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney's campaign who abruptly resigned amid pressure from social conservatives.
Then, on Meet the Press, Vice President Joe Biden said he is "absolutely comfortable" extending full legal marriage rights to gay and lesbian Americans, who are "entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights," as heterosexuals. On Monday Arne Duncan took an unusual step for an education secretary by answering a television commentator's question about whether he supports gay marriage: "I do," he said.
All the president's men rushed to the front lines of divisive battle. The Obama campaign touted Romney's view that legal marriage should be narrowly defined (a view the former Massachusetts governor reiterated Wednesday), and for days the press pushed a key question: Will the president ever come out with a definitive gay-marriage position?
During his 1996 campaign for the Illinois Senate, Obama told a Chicago gay newspaper: "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and I would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." Nearly a dozen years later, as a presidential candidate, Obama said he was comfortable only with civil unions.
Then, in Washington in December 2010, the president said that his views on the gay-marriage question "are constantly evolving. I struggle with this. I have friends, I have people who work for me who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions."
Here are some indisputable facts about the president's relationship with gay people: He supported ending the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. His Justice Department has refused to defend the federal ban on same-sex marriages. The president and his party clearly have had no problem asking gay men and lesbians for campaign money — and patience while he evolved.
But in the ABC interview taped at the White House Wednesday and scheduled to air next week, the president was definitive: "I had hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient. I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word 'marriage' was something that invokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth."
In many ways, North Carolina's gay-marriage debate reflects the demographic shifts under way in the state and across the South. These shifts are driven by an infusion of young, educated white and black professionals and Latinos — the majority (pdf) of whom support gay marriage — who aren't necessarily beholden to the region's old ways. This disparate group is a key part of Obama's progressive base. So his public evolution on gay marriage may actually prove to be a success.
Obama's Christianity may have factored into how long he took to firm his stance on gay marriage. So may his campaign handlers' fear of alienating socially conservative blacks, particularly ministers, who will be needed to energize voters, especially in North Carolina, Florida and Virginia. Polls that campaign strategists swear by support this argument.
But don't believe the hype about pervasive black homophobia. Numbers don't always tell a complete story. Consider the black Indiana mother who gave her son a stun gun to protect himself against bullies.
Then there are modern black voices like that of Cory Booker, who, in response to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's suggestion for a gay-marriage ballot measure, offered this: "No minority should have their rights subject to the passions and sentiment of the majority. This is a fundamental bedrock of what our nation stands for." Ahead of Tuesday's vote, North Carolina's NAACP chief, the Rev. William Barber, told reporters that the measure was an "appalling human document."
The idea that it's a political mistake for Obama to deliver an honest, conclusive argument on gay marriage is as silly as the prevailing view that he can't talk candidly about race — because, well, we're post-racial, and in polite society, let's just overlook the fact that a black guy's living in the White House.
Demography, and history, will deal with North Carolina and other states that have made gay marriage illegal. It's debatable whether government belongs in the marriage business. The truth is, not every gay person wants to marry. But I'm betting that the country that elected Barack Obama president is smart enough to handle forward-looking leadership on gay marriage — and, simply, equality for all citizens.
It's tragic when a leader appeases too much in the face of what history and his own personal narrative indicate is right. America doesn't need a safe president. It needs one who is unafraid to say exactly what he believes, and why. Finally, and thankfully, this November we'll choose between two candidates whose view of equality couldn't be clearer.