Galvanizing Issue

05.15.12

Why Gays Did President Obama a Favor by Pushing Him on Gay Marriage

Nervous pundits feared that backing same-sex marriage would hurt the president. But John Aravosis says his community gave Obama a chance to show courage—and brought him closer to winning in November.

“Black voters will freak.”

That’s what the chattering class kept warning those of us pushing President Obama to endorse same-sex marriage. He’ll lose the black vote and energize evangelicals all the way to defeat this November, they told us. And, of course, it would be the fault of the gay community for making such an unreasonable demand.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Alamo.

Obama came out in favor of gay marriage and the black community gave a collective shrug.

In a just-released poll by Pew Research (PDF), 49 percent of whites surveyed said the president’s embrace of marriage equality did not alter their opinion of him. And among African-Americans, the number soared to 68 percent (with 16 percent saying it made them view Obama more favorably, and only 13 percent claiming less).

So while African-Americans may not support same-sex marriage to the same degree as whites (depending on the survey, black support tends to be in the low 40s), they still like Barack Obama. And no one should be surprised—the president did win 96 percent of the black vote in the last election.

So much for the notion that we should be feeling guilty.

The bigger question for Obama is how his decision will affect Democratic voters, independents, and the GOP base.

It’s no secret that liberals were disappointed with the first few years of the Obama presidency. It wasn’t so much that the president failed to win enough battles with the Republicans, it was the sense on the left that he simply didn’t try—that Obama either never intended to keep his promises, or worse, was afraid to.

The turning point for many progressives was the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in December 2010. While the repeal was obviously a big deal to those of us in the gay community, I was surprised by how many of my straight friends on the left shared our sense of victory and elation, and by those in the media who characterized the repeal as a necessary first step toward Obama’s winning back the left in 2012.

Gay rights switched from being perceived as an albatross around the necks of national Democrats to an issue that could galvanize the party’s base.

In that moment, the conventional wisdom shifted.

LGBT civil rights stopped being a ghettoized issue important only to a small (but noisy) Democratic constituency and started being seen as a core Democratic value.

The Obama campaign now regularly cites DADT among its top first-term achievements—and not just when speaking to gay voters and donors but to the public at large. Gay rights switched from being perceived as an albatross around the necks of national Democrats to an issue that could galvanize the party’s base and, just as important, showcase the president’s courage.

And that’s the second important change that began with the repeal of DADT and was cemented with Obama’s embrace of marriage equality. Barack Obama became a leader in the eyes of a number of doubting Democrats and independents (57 percent of whom back gay marriage).

The president who seemed almost afraid of change became an agent of change. The man we voted for was finally back.

As for far-right evangelicals, sure, they may get a small spike in enthusiasm from the news of the past week. But these are people who already have a visceral dislike of the president, and who “knew” Obama was for same-sex marriage even before he did. Nothing Obama did or could do would change their poor opinion of him, and he should give up trying.

Someone who is paying an electoral price for Obama’s announcement is Mitt Romney. Coming on the heels of the self-deportation, the week before, of his openly gay national-security spokesman, in response to vicious homophobic attacks by the far right, Romney decided that the best way to respond to the president’s decision was to move even further to the anti-gay right by retracting his earlier support for the right of same-sex couples to adopt.

The irony is that Romney has the same problem with the evangelical far right as Obama. They know that neither is their man, and nothing will convince them otherwise. Moderate Republicans and independents who could potentially vote for the Massachusetts Mitt of days gone by are still looking for proof of Romney’s inner liberal. And in defiance of conventional wisdom, rather than moving to the middle, Romney continues to veer to the right.

The vote in November may wind up being close, but by pressing Obama to evolve on this issue, gays have only helped the president secure a second term.