Even now, during the closing months of his first term, Barack Obama remains a curiously elusive political leader. That is why the abrupt conclusion to his evolution on gay marriage, announced Wednesday in an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, is one of the most fascinating moments in his presidency. Glib theories about Obama’s often-cautious approach to the presidency, especially in an election year, have to be revamped in light of his sudden endorsement of gay marriage.
There is a temptation to view the turnabout solely in electoral terms. Obama himself said that the politics of same-sex marriage “may hurt me.” But perhaps the president made the calculation that he was willing to risk the loss of a fraction of socially conservative swing voters in states like Ohio in order to guarantee the enthusiasm of his top fundraisers. (A Washington Post analysis found that almost 20 percent of Obama’s bundlers have publicly revealed that they are gay). Maybe there is even private Obama polling indicating that November turnout among voters in the millennial generation is apt to be higher if the president took a firm position on gay marriage.
Such political narrowcasting misses an essential truth about Obama: his pride and his fear of embarrassment. Joe Biden, by offering an emotional response to the gay-marriage question Sunday on “Meet the Press,” left Obama looking like the Cowardly Lion unable to find his heart until after the election. For Obama to keep mulling the issue as if he were taking a private course in Talmudic Studies would make the president seem faintly ridiculous.
[Related: Join the debate about gay marriage]
Even if the gay-marriage issue was seen as a dangerous distraction by Obama’s re-election campaign, all the president’s handlers could not wish it away. Whether it was the awkward necessity of writing evasive language for the gay marriage plank in the Democratic platform or seeing his campaign surrogates constantly grilled on the question, Obama undoubtedly knew that his room for maneuver was constrained. So the president, after 72 hours of reflection, did the right thing.
Both as an African American and as the nation’s first president who grew up after the climactic days of the civil-rights movement, Obama undoubtedly has wondered how he would have reacted if he had found himself on the frontlines of that transcendent moral issue. Obviously, no one is opposing gay marriages with dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs. But this issue is the closest proxy that 21st-century America has to offer to the which-side-are-you-on struggles of the 1960s. In moral terms, it is quite possible that Obama could not personally endure further equivocation.
In making his decision to walk down the aisle with gay marriage, Obama underscored his awareness that poll-tested politics can only carry you so far in the Oval Office, even in an election year. During Saturday’s campaign kick-off rally in Columbus, Ohio, Michelle Obama told the crowd that the problems that reach the president’s desk “are the ones with no clear solutions--the judgment calls where the stakes are so high and there is no margin for error.” The first lady may have been alluding to the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, but the same principle could be extended to the president’s decision about his public support for gay marriage.
[Related: How will Obama’s gay marriage decision affect his re-election campaign?]
In November 2003, the highest court in Massachusetts ruled that gay marriage was legal based on the state Constitution. The Massachusetts governor at the time--who by a weird twist of fate was Mitt Romney--vehemently opposed the decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s struggle to defeat George W. Bush in the 2004 election was complicated by the liberal high court decision in his home state, even though he distanced himself from the ruling.
During the 2004 campaign, it would have seemed ludicrous and embarrassingly naive to imagine that a future president--especially one facing a difficult re-election campaign--would endorse gay marriage. Maybe in 2028, but certainly not in 2012. But such is the engine of social change, slowly chugging up the hill with I-think-I-can determination and then dramatically accelerating once it is over the crest. With an unequivocal statement by Obama on Wednesday, gay marriage suddenly became codified as--at minimum--a bedrock principle of the Democratic Party.
When political handicappers rattle off the hard-to-predict variables that will shape the election and the challenges of the presidency in 2013, they invariably point to the economy and global threats such as the Iranian nuclear program. But such armchair attempts at prophecy are often too cautious and the horizon too limited. Sometimes, it is as simple as a president confronted with a moral choice--and his awareness that the time for temporizing and hand wringing is over.