Obama And The Arc Of History

Marriage equality supporters Teri McClain, left, and Mary Beth Brotski stand with signs supporting President Barack Obama outside a fundraising event for the president, Thursday, May 10 in Seattle. (AP)
Marriage equality supporters Teri McClain, left, and Mary Beth Brotski stand with signs supporting President Barack Obama outside a fundraising event for the president, Thursday, May 10 in Seattle. (AP)

We now know that President Obama had planned to announce his final evolution in favor of gay marriage this week, not last. When he heard what his vice president had said, Obama said ruefully that Joe Biden had "got out over his skis,” a clever way to describe jumping the gun. Biden was impulsive, not in on the plan.

Before considering the politics, let me state that sometimes presidents do things simply because it is the right thing to do, without regard to the political consequences. This was a historic declaration from a man whose election was historic.

When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act he said, “There goes the South.” Democrats, this son of Texas felt, could kiss Dixie goodbye in subsequent elections. LBJ was right – both to sign it and about its political impact.

Despite what cynics have said, Obama could not have believed that his position would gain him votes or cast him in a more favorable light in tossup states. A recent national Gallup poll for USA Today found that Americans favor same sex marriage narrowly 51 to 46 percent, while eight in 10 said it would make no difference in their vote. (Don’t bank on that, Mr. President.)

We should remember that we elect presidents not by national popular vote but by state.  Swing states like Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania have passed binding measures to prohibit same sex marriages. The president needs to win at least three of those states. While 60 percent of North Carolinians voted last week against gay marriage, the good news is they made up only about a third of the electorate eligible to vote in November.

The economy is the dominant issue in those and other states, so if Mitt Romney can somehow make himself the preferable option on the economy, or play Obama to a draw on it, gay marriage could be a tie-breaker for social conservatives.

Voters knew, or should have known, that the president is a tolerant man. No doubt he thought of the words of  Dr. Martin Luther King who said “The arc of history bends towards justice.” His administration has pursued justice in refusing to support the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman; in backing equal pay for women; in making gender and sexual preference attacks hate crimes; and in working to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

It's likely gay people will be energized by the president’s statement and will contribute money and time to his reelection. It had an immediate impact in Hollywood where a fundraiser in the home of actor George Clooney raised $15 million in one night. It is also equally likely that straight activists opposed to same sex marriage will be motivated to work and donate to defeat Obama.

Gov. Deval Patrick, when he was running for governor the first time, encountered stiff and  troubling opposition by members of the black clergy for his stance on gay marriage and gay rights. He never put those concerns entirely to rest, but by the time the election took place, I suspect those black ministers stopped preaching against Patrick.


Obama will face similar complaints – 49 percent of African Americans oppose same sex marriage while only 39 percent favor it. But when black voters go to the polls in November, they will support America’s first black president out of pride and a belief that he cares more about social justice and equality than Mitt Romney.

The vote for president, columnist Mark Shields has long held, is the most personal vote anyone will cast.

Elections are, in the final analysis, a leap of faith. We vote for a president we believe will do right for the country, not agree with us on everything.

As for Mitt Romney, he had a bad week.  The Washington Post documented that a young Romney bullied a prep school classmate and forcibly cut his hair over his screams because he was presumed to be gay. Another time Romney wore a pig’s mask and followed the most overweight kid in school, making oinking sounds as he walked the halls. Yet another time he misled a teacher with poor eyesight into a closed door.

Richard Grenell, a self-described “out, loud and proud homosexual” recently resigned as Romney’s national security advisor because he was not allowed to speak publicly and was disinvited to briefings after social conservatives complained about his role in the campaign. Romney is a leader in the Mormon Church, which was a major donor to an anti-gay marriage ballot campaign in California, Prop 8, and is now trying to overturn a law that legalized gay marriage in Maryland.

While the president made his change of heart public on national television, Romney’s ever shifting positions on issues affecting gay and lesbian Americans seem to have occured in a closet.  When Romney ran for the senate against Ted Kennedy, he declared that he would be a better friend to the gay community than Kennedy. When asked about Obama’s declaration, Romney said that he’s been opposed to gay marriage and civil unions “uh, uh [pause] ever since, uh, I’ve been a candidate.” Apparently that means ever since he’s been a candidate for president in 2012, although we can’t be sure.

While Romney looks like a man defending the Edsel, President Obama has placed himself on the right side of history. His was an expression of tolerance, not advocacy. A lot has changed in the last six days; a lot more will change in the next six months.

This program aired on May 14, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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Dan Payne Democratic Political Analyst
Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR.



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