By endorsing gay marriage, Obama used the primary power a president has: the symbolic kind.
Since President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage a couple of weeks ago, there's been a noticeable shift in black Americans' opinion on gay marriage. A new Washington Post-ABC survey found that 59 percent of black people now say they support same-sex marriage—an 18 point jump since Obama's announcement. Fifty-three percent of Americans now believe that same-sex marriage should be legalized; that represents a seismic shift since 2006, when just 39 percent of those polled thought it should be legalized.
The Washington Post warned of a "relatively small sample size," but numbers elsewhere are echoing the pattern: A recent Public Policy poll showed that 57 percent of Maryland voters approve of the new gay marriage law, with 55 percent of African Americans planning to vote for the law and only 36 percent now opposed. Those numbers have reversed from just a few months ago, when 56 percent of black voters saying they would vote against the new law and only 39 percent planning to uphold it.
Perhaps more important than the numbers, influential black celebrities like Will Smith and Jay-Z, along with political leaders like Jesse Jackson, Corey Booker, and Rep. John Lewis, have come out in favor of same-sex marriage. So has the NAACP. Obama's not getting much love from the black churches, but he seems to have persuaded, or at least emboldened, a large portion of the black community to support gay rights.
If Mitt Romney's malleable positions over the past year are any indication, politicians often defer to voters' steadfast beliefs instead of trying to sway them. In Obama's case, though, he's smart to get ahead of voters when it comes to civil rights. It's been very difficult for a president, and Obama in particular, to enact piecemeal legislative change with a stagnant, highly partisan Congress. Even when he scores a victory, like the Affordable Care Act, his triumph gets mired in the details. His power lies in his status as a figurehead, and in his ability to act decisively on emotional issues. If he's not preempting voters and encouraging forward-thinking change, is he really living up to the promise of his campaign—and the office of the president?
Coming out in favor of gay marriage isn't as risky a proposition as, say, declaring support for the civil rights movement was in the 1960s. Gay marriage is widely accepted as an inevitability. The issue is becoming politically safer and safer. Even some black pastors who oppose Obama's statement are encouraging their communities to re-elect him.
So if gay marriage is now relatively politically "safe," what's today's risky issue that would really benefit from the president taking a stance? America's changing demographics and, in turn, our need for immigration reform. It's no coincidence that Obama has so far avoided tackling the issue, other than speaking out against Arizona's draconian enforcement law, SB1070. But even though it's more politically complicated, Obama would put himself on the right side of history a lot faster than he did with gay rights—and he'd hopefully influence a few xenophobes along the way.