|Obama made his support for gay marriage official during an ABC news interview on May 9th.|
The president's statement came in response to growing pressure on him to clarify his position in the wake of vice president Joe Biden's statements on gay marriage days earlier. The VP had stated he was "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage, which led many to speculate that the president would either be making his own statements in line with Biden's or that there would be an awkward disagreement and a whole lot of backpedaling within the administration.
Personally, I think this is a long overdue affirmation of a position that has basically been attached to the Obama administration since the president first expressed anything other than across-the-board opposition to gay marriage, civil unions or any other form of legitimization of the gay lifestyle. Despite the fact that Obama took the easy way out and tried to have his cake and eat it too by supporting civil unions but not supporting actual marriage in order to coddle moderate and independent votes in 2008, he was basically labeled as being a pro-gay marriage president by conservatives anyway. In the last 3 1/2 years, with actions like repealing DADT and instructing the justice dept. to stop defending DOMA, Obama has been showing his hand even more that he would eventually be coming out fully in support of gay marriage in time for the election.
It's a smart move too, really.
Conservatives are going to label Obama as pro-gay marriage regardless, because of those aforementioned policy changes and especially in light of the sudden and radical far-right swing that the Republican party has taken ever since they were co-opted by the Tea Party during the mid-terms. The Republicans have doubled down on extreme social conservatism and with their silly putty candidate, Mitt Romney, fully prepared to allow himself to be molded and shaped into the perfectly-coiffed poster child for the new, radical conservative movement, they have staked out a platform that leaves no room for deviation from that hardline ideology. Any position other than full, unequivocal opposition to gay rights in any form will be met with scorn by the right, so trying to play the middle road and not taking a firm stance on the issue would only hurt Obama. Thus, taking the pro-gay marriage stance doesn't really hurt Obama anymore than taking a muddled, pro-civil union stance.
When it comes to moderates and independents, however, the Obama strategy of full endorsement that would likely have cost him some important votes in 2008 also has a much more benign impact in 2012. In an election where moderates still had some small place in the Republican party and independents were a voting body worth softening the hardline conservative position to appease, it was smart strategy to remain vague on this issue, but in the current incarnation of the GOP, there is no place for a socially moderate viewpoint and any independents that don't embrace social conservatism are dismissed as liberal and pushed away by the unflinching far right. Thus, when it comes to social issues in this election, you're either in lock-step with the far right or you're "one of them", there's increasingly no room for exception.
Romney's camp has indicated that they don't see the hardline, far right social conservatism of the Republican primaries carrying over into the general election. This is the infamous "etch-a-sketch" comment where they feel Romney can "shake" his position and completely reset it and the voting public will simply give him a pass. There is some logic to this statement, obviously, because with the 24-hour news cycle and the ADD nature of our media, it's very easy to manipulate public opinion on any given issue by simply controlling what or how much coverage is given to the subject. It stands to reason that between now and the home stretch of the presidential election there will be some narrowing of the gap between Obama and Romney that is currently reflected in the polling. Certainly the economy, gas prices and an abundance of other issues that resonate much more strongly with independent and swing voters will affect both Obama and Romney's popularity going into the voting booths and how the president handles those issues will have the biggest impact on how voters will pull that lever when the time comes. Really, the pressure is still fully on the president to either make or break his re-election through the way he publicizes his successes and spins his shortfalls on these key issues.
However, when it comes to the social "wedge issues" like gay marriage, abortion and so on, the Republicans have done a lot during the primaries to make Obama's job much easier in terms of winning over undecideds and independents. Regardless of the Romney campaigns attempts to distance themselves from their hyper-conservative primary rhetoric, the Republicans in office continue to push the extreme social conservative agenda, be it Arizona cutting funding for Planned Parenthood or North Carolina taking it's stance against gay marriage. Conservative politicians are still out there reminding the general public that their hardline stance isn't just primary campaign red meat rhetoric, it's a plan of action and, most importantly, that social moderates have no place in the new Republican party.
So, taking a definitive stance in support of gay marriage is a win-win for Obama. It ignites the Democratic base and earns him brownie points with liberals and progressives and it forces the Republicans to respond. Given the Republican policy of taking the polar opposite stance on whatever position Obama supports, they will almost certainly find themselves compelled to come out in the most strongly contrary manner possible. If Obama supports gay marriage, then Republicans will say that they think homosexuality should be illegal. In the middle of all of this will be undecided and independent voters - who statistically are moderate with a slightly progressive leaning when it comes to social issues. These voters will see two clear choices for the election when it comes to those social issues - either vote for the party that supports full equality, which is a position they may not fully endorse but aren't necessarily fully opposed to either - or vote for the party that absolutely opposes full equality in a way that makes it incredibly hard to throw your support behind if you don't want to be labeled as an extremist conservative idealog. At least, this is how the Obama administration seems to be playing it and, given the spectacular failure of the Republican's war on women, it's a safe bet this too will be a smart strategy.
For now, though, having a sitting president come out publicly in favor of same-sex marriage is a remarkable and ground-breaking event. Regardless of how the election turns out, the gauntlet has been thrown down and the conversation has been started. If Obama loses in November, gay rights will almost certainly be rolled back in a completely draconian and punitive manner just to stick it to the liberals, but the seeds have been sewn and public opinion has been influenced regardless. The average American is much more tolerant of gay rights than they were even a decade ago and the wheels of social progress continue to turn. Same-sex marriage under a Romney president may well be kicked down the road a decade or more, while an Obama win all but guarantees the passage of same-sex marriage in the next 4 years, but either way it's going to happen. Progress is inevitable, the will of the people will always triumph.