Was that so hard, Mr. President?
On Wednesday, after years of evolving and a week of new political pressure, Barack Obama sat down with ABCs Robin Roberts and uttered the sentiment hed so awkwardly avoided until now: He thinks same-sex marriage is OK.
In an interview to be aired in full Thursday, Obama said: Ive 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.
America had a pretty good idea this was how Obama felt, thanks to his opposition to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, plus his opposition to North Carolinas constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, plus a gay rights record that strongly suggests he believes homosexuals deserve full equality.
Obama had long hoped those policies would be statement enough on gays, and given that polls show Americans experiencing a slow evolution on same-sex marriage, we might have been inclined to be patient with Obamas personal journey on the issue. Except that 16 years ago, then Illinois state Senate candidate Obama submitted a signed questionnaire supporting same-sex marriages (the White House later claimed it was filled out by someone else). After backtracking in 2004 and saying that marriage should be between a man and a woman, he has thrown every hint possible that hes coming around on the issue without offending potential swing-state voters by actually coming around on the issue.
That is, until this week, when Vice President Joe Biden said he was absolutely comfortable with same-sex marriage and suggested it was a civil right. The press pounced, questioning other administration officials (Education Secretary Arne Duncan is also in favor, in case you were wondering). Suddenly, Obamas reticence on the matter had moved from politically expedient to potentially cowardly.
So what changes now? Pragmatically, little. The issue is one that continues to be decided by states, with North Carolina the latest to adopt an amendment banning same-sex marriage. Four other states will have varying forms of same-sex marriage measures on the ballot later this year.
The courts, too, will continue to have input on the issue, with a handful of state courts already ruling same-sex bans unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court might also decide someday on the propriety of such amendments and laws, so its helpful to know the perspective of a president who might appoint a justice or two. (Republican candidate Mitt Romney has said he opposes same-sex marriage.)
The greater value, however, is symbolic. Most every movement toward change eventually needs a leaders endorsement to propel it forward, but until Wednesday, Obama seemed to be calculating the votes he might lose on same-sex marriage instead of the hearts he might speak to. Its an unfortunate pattern of his presidency. Then-candidate Obama campaigned in 2008 on breaking the mold of cynical politics, but he too often has cowed from difficult political choices as president, ducking out the back door when the moment was banging on the front.
On Wednesday, finally, he did what leaders should do: Say when they think something is right or wrong. We welcome his public embrace of principle on same-sex marriage, but it shouldnt have been nearly this hard.