On gay marriage, Obama will make a change you can believe in—in 2013

Walter Shapiro

“If there is one thing that we learned in 2008, it’s that nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change.”  —Barack Obama on Saturday at his campaign kickoff rally in Columbus, Ohio

The next day, Joe Biden added his voice (more or less) to the millions calling for change in the laws that ban gay marriage. Then Monday morning, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a Chicagoan like the president, endorsed gay marriage during an MSNBC interview. Before the week is over, it is a safe bet that other prominent members of the Obama administration—when pressed by reporters—will join the chorus. That is how a social movement builds, one public conversion at a time.

In theory, it is possible for an accomplished grammarian—or a nervous Obama campaign operative—to parse Biden’s emotional remarks on “Meet the Press” about “love” and the “marriages of lesbians or gay men” and see nothing new. But such semantic gamesmanship does not explain why Biden felt compelled to confide to NBC viewers that he was so impressed after recently meeting the adopted children of a gay couple in Los Angeles that he told their parents, “I wish every American could see the look of love those kids had in their eyes for you guys.” Even though Biden never explicitly mouthed the four words “I support gay marriage,” the vice president’s position could not have been clearer than if he had presided over gay unions himself.

The president himself is not there yet. In fact, his public views keep evolving at roughly the pace of the Galapagos tortoises that Darwin studied. The only reference to gay rights in Obama’s new stump speech was embedded in this line: “We’re not returning to the days when you could be kicked out of the United States military just because of who you are or who you love.” But despite Obama’s current don’t-ask-don’t-tell equivocation on the subject of gay marriage (he opposes discrimination against gay couples), everyone can guess the evolutionary miracle that will occur as soon as the election is over. In 2013, either as a second-term president or as a private citizen beyond political ambition, Obama almost certainly will reinvent himself as a supporter of gay marriage.

Aside from his meetings with Republican members of Congress, Obama is almost always in rooms where the overwhelming majority of those present support legalizing gay marriage. A 2011 Gallup poll found that more than two-thirds of all Democrats take that position, while a recent Pew Research Center survey put the figure at just under 60 percent. When you factor in the elite educational pedigrees of the White House staff and the cultural liberalism of major Democratic donors in Hollywood and on Wall Street, Obama is completely out of step with his peer groups with his not-so-fast reluctance on gay marriage.

Obama is even lagging behind that trailblazing crusader, Dick Cheney. Much to the dismay of his 2008 liberal supporters, Obama has embraced the hawkish views of Cheney on targeted assassinations, the unchecked war-making powers of the president and the necessity to keep the prison at Guantanamo operating. But when it comes to echoing Cheney’s surprising support for gay marriage—that is a position currently far too extreme for an apostle of hope and change like Obama.

What is striking from the polling on gay marriage is how rapidly attitudes have changed from passionate opposition to puzzled equivocation to growing support. According to the polling from the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of all American voters opposed gay marriage in 2004. Now, just two presidential elections later, extending the institution of marriage to homosexual couples is supported by a margin of 47 percent to 43 percent. These days, in fact, Republicans are about the only political group still outraged by the specter of gay marriage: Forty percent of GOP voters describe themselves as “strongly opposed” compared to just 19 percent of independents and 14 percent of Democrats.

Even if North Carolina, as expected, votes Tuesday to add a ban on gay marriage to the state constitution, it should mostly be regarded as a symbol of rear-guard resistance. The wave of the future can be found in polling that reveals that more than two-thirds of all voters under 30 support gay marriage. Of course, the president’s campaign team appears to believe that coming out for gay marriage in the heat of a re-election campaign would distract from Obama’s inspirational political message: Mitt Romney’s worse.

If Obama dips into the latest volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography, “The Passage of Power,” he may well pause when he reads LBJ’s reaction to the advisers who urged political caution about embracing civil rights on the verge of a presidential election. Johnson snapped, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

A close reading of “The Passage of Power” reveals that Johnson always understood the importance of political timing. It would be easy for Obama to conclude that now is simply not the time to speak out clearly about gay marriage. But mealy-mouthed evasions and rhetorical obfuscation come at a cost—dampening the enthusiasm of supporters and frittering away the opportunities provided by the bully pulpit of the presidency. Obama is fooling no one with his endless evolutionary pondering of gay marriage. A brave president—election year or not--might follow the lead of Joe Biden and actually say what he thinks.