Evolution is a funny thing. It takes time; things change but ultimately wind up in the right place. So, when President Obama demurred in the early days of his administration that his views on gay marriage were still “evolving,” most of us gave the president a respectful amount of space to work it out. Given the many social, political and personal realities (and implications) attached to the issue of gay marriage, everyone, including the president should be allowed to wind up in the right place for them on this issue.
In what appeared to be a hastily arranged interview with ABC News, the president finally announced his personal views on gay marriage stating “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.” Indeed, many of the president’s allies spoke of his “courage” in doing so — never mind the president had just announced a major reversal in his evolution.
Of course, Mr. Obama has been evolving on this issue for some time. In 1996, as a candidate for the state Senate in Illinois, Mr. Obama stated "unequivocal" support for same-sex marriage but by the time he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 he had evolved against same sex marriage because as “such arrangements contravened his religious faith.” But then in 2008 there was further evolution on this issue when the president said he supported civil unions but still opposed same-sex marriage.
After much prodding, cajoling and some embarrassment on the subject, the president weighed the consequences, measured the upside-downside potential and found the opportunity to finally announce his “personal” view irresistible. In short: there was nothing courageous about the president’s announcement.
Realizing they could no longer control the narrative surrounding the president’s position — especially on the heels of Vice President Joe Biden’s declaration supporting gay marriage on Meet the Press or the vote in North Carolina banning gay marriage, the White House worked quickly to get the president in front of the messaging and the cameras to share his enlightenment with the rest of us.
Whether you believe the White House was “upset” that Biden spoke out of turn and put the president in a box on the subject of gay marriage or that his and other administration officials suddenly “outing” themselves on the subject was part of some grand calculation, the only calculation that mattered was maintaining and expanding LGBT support (and money) going into this campaign. Now President Obama can fly into that fundraiser on Thursday hosted by actor George Clooney, collect his $15 million in donations from Hollywood people active in the gay-rights cause and leave with a clear conscience. So much for evolution.
While Obama would like us to think his journey to embrace gay marriage (again) has been akin to the soul-searching quest of a Knights Templar, he is no different than anyone else in Washington when it comes to the politics of opportunity and cynicism. The problem for the president was it wasn’t enough to sign the bill ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell;” or to speak with embellished rhetoric about the concerns of the gay community or even for his administration to conclude that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional (who knew the Executive Branch could deem a law to be unconstitutional). However, the gay community actually wanted more — a firm commitment from the president to the centerpiece of their cause.
So, how does this shake out? Unlike 2004, when George Bush leveraged the gay marriage issue to his advantage in places like Ohio and picked up enough of the votes of African-Americans, among others, to seal his victory, there will be little or no drop off in support for the president among African-Americans despite a majority of the community (55%) being against gay marriage.
With the president onboard and a plurality of all Americans now favoring gay marriage (50%-48%), this issue may not be a stumbling block for the president or the Democrats heading into the fall. However, the underlying force of a stagnant economy, a slow reduction in unemployment, the looming increase in taxes and the overall feeling of the American people that the country is still on the wrong track may yet sober the mind and focus the attention of the president on more weighty things like putting people back to work.
But that may take some evolution.
Michael Steele served as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a political commentator. He will be providing commentary on all things politics for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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