Judging Obama's "Evolution" on Marriage Equality

Years from now, Barack Obama will almost certainly be seen as the most significant American president in the history of the gay rights movement. Under his watch, the military ended its policy of discrimination against gay servicemembers, the Defense of Marriage Act was abandoned by the administration and then overturned by the Supreme Court, and a majority of Americans came to embrace marriage equality—not least, the president himself.

But there's another way to look at that story, which is that on marriage, at least, Obama had to be dragged to the position he eventually took. An article in next Sunday's New York Times Magazine, by Jo Becker, details just what the process was, and if you're looking for evidence that Obama's "evolution" on the issue was purely political, there's plenty. I don't know too many liberals who would doubt it—or conservatives either, for that matter. The former see a president whose heart was in the right place but was cautious about when it would be possible for him to embrace same-sex marriage, while the latter see a president who dishonestly hid his radical agenda.

It's pretty clear by now that most Republican politicians are going to go through the same evolution as Obama did. There will always be holdouts on the far right, but before long, the typical Republican senator is going to be personally in favor of marriage equality, but unable to come out and say so until the political environment—in this case, within the Republican party—reduces the political risk of doing so.

Here's how Becker describes the political thinking within the White House as the issue came to a head before the 2012 election:

The assumption going into the 2012 campaign was that there was little to be gained politically from the president's coming down firmly in favor of same-sex marriage. In particular, his political advisers were worried that his endorsement could splinter the coalition needed to win a second term, depressing turnout among socially conservative African-Americans, Latinos and white working-class Catholics in battleground states.

But by November 2011, it was becoming increasingly clear that continuing to sidestep the issue came with its own set of costs. The campaign's internal polling revealed that the issue was a touchstone for likely Obama voters under 30. The campaign needed those voters to turn out in the record numbers they had four years earlier, and the biggest impediment was Obama's refusal to say he favored allowing gay couples to wed.

"We understood that this would be galvanizing to some voters and be difficult with other voters," said Jim Messina, the manager of Obama's 2012 campaign.

Caught between countervailing political forces, Obama called his top aides together and said that if asked again for his position, he both wanted and needed to drop the pretense and tell people where he really stood.

"The politics of authenticity — not just the politics, but his own sense of authenticity — required that he finally step forward," Axelrod said. "And the president understood that."

That is one priceless Freudian slip from Axelrod, about the requirements of the "politics of authenticity." But he's a political consultant, and his job to think about the politics of everything. Regardless, what the article doesn't contain is much evidence that Obama struggled with anything but the politics. Maybe he did, and Becker just didn't talk to anyone who could share his personal contemplations. (She didn't get to interview Obama himself.) But Obama is an extremely pragmatic politician, sometimes to a fault. It's much more likely that in the end, what will be remembered is the place he arrived, not how long it took him to get there.

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