Was Obama's bold statement today a cop-out or an act of bravery? And where do we go from here?
In the interview the whole internet is talking about, President Obama finally came out in support of same-sex marriage, saying he'd "evolved" from his previous stance that marriage should be between a man and a woman. It's a great symbolic step for the country and the president, who said that he once thought civil unions would be "sufficient" for gay couples.
Then he continued: "But I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, monogamous, same-sex relationships who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained now that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is gone because they’re not able to commit themselves in a marriage. 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 that same-sex couples should be able to get married."
Some are wondering if this will be Obama's LBJ moment; when he emulates Johnson's "evolution" on civil rights for blacks by reversing his original opinion and then following up that reversal with some serious piece of equality legislation. If one important bit of Obama's statement is any indication, it will not be that moment: He emphasized that policy decisions on same-sex marriage should be left up to individual states. That should tell you all you need to know about how fearsome today's proclamation actually is.
Obama didn't say he plans to go after the 30 states with same-sex marriage bans in their constitutions, including North Carolina, which voted to ban gay marriage just yesterday. He didn't say opposing gay marriage is bigoted and a violation of pages and pages of logical and scientific reasoning. He didn't ask ministers in the black community, over which he has a lot of sway, to consider laying off the anti-gay rhetoric in their churches. He also didn't come out and say he hopes the Supreme Court will hear the Prop. 8 case heading toward it and rule that gay-marriage bans are unconstitutional under the equal protection clause. All the president did, regardless of how the various news outlets are going to try and spin it, was say that he doesn't mind if gay people get married. After years of gay activists calling for him to explain his stance on gay marriage, it was a pretty tepid response.
To be fair, Obama's Justice Department has refused to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. And more recently, Obama paved the way for the elimination of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the military. This is not a president who has ignored the plight of gays and lesbians as much as his predecessors. Besides, firsts are firsts, and being the first sitting president in the history of the United States to come out in support of a marriage equality is a nice milestone.
Decrying its toothlessness, Gawker's John Cook is calling Obama's same-sex marriage statement "bullshit" and "a shameful dodge." I can see where he's coming from, especially considering how much lip service the gay community often receives from unmotivated politicians. After a while, being told to be patient and allow everyone to realize you're a human being can be grating. That said, if issues like women's suffrage and black civil rights are prologue, the march toward LGBT equality will be less a sprint and more a sequence of falling dominoes. If this domino didn't fall hard enough for you, let's hope the next one will.