Obama's Gay-Marriage Switch: Why Now?

Why endorse gay marriage now? Because the flailing president wants to distract attention from his clumsy economic policies.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

It’s easy to explain the philosophical basis for Barack Obama’s decision to endorse same-sex marriage But it’s tough to understand the political calculation behind his timing.

Why would the beleaguered president wait till the last seven months of his term of office, and the midst of a difficult campaign for re-election, to reverse his position on a deeply polarizing social issue which, at best, divides the public down the middle?

The president’s surprise announcement violates the first rule of all savvy political strategists: do everything you can to unite your core supporters, while splitting the opposition. The administration’s new backing for the redefinition of marriage accomplishes exactly the opposite purpose: uniting Republicans and badly dividing the president’s own base. The results this week in North Carolina, along with exit polls in all states which previously voted on same-sex marriage, indicate that even many of Obama’s faithful fans in the black and Latino communities disagree with him on this issue.

Who, exactly, are the target voters who will respond to the president’s sudden reversal on gay marriage by suddenly switching their allegiance from Romney to Obama? It’s safe to assume that anyone who strongly supported the redefinition of marriage had already aligned with the Democrats, given the unequivocal position of the GOP in defense of traditional male-female matrimony. At the same time, some critics of same-sex marriage who felt reassured by the president’s eight years of consistent, outspoken opposition to radical change may now feel disillusioned, even betrayed. In North Carolina, a crucial swing state the president carried eight years ago and where he chose to site this year’s Democratic National Convention, 61 percent of all voters in Tuesday’s high turnout election cast their ballots for a constitutional amendment affirming traditional parameters for government-sponsored matrimony. Sensing disaster, the Obama campaign had canceled plans for an appearance in the state on Election Day, and within 12 hours of learning the final results he gave an interview to ABC implicitly decrying the landslide verdict.

Had the vote gone the other way, the president might have justified his decision to reconsider on same-sex marriage by noting that sentiment even in the faith-and-family South had shifted in a new direction, and that all Americans seemed ready to embrace a fresh attitude. But the outcome in the Tar Heel State wasn’t even close, so the president’s timing seemed deliberately calculated to show contempt for the very message the voters attempted to send.

Why would he go out of his way to court new controversy when nearly all gay-rights advocates had already resigned themselves to the idea that he’d wait to complete his “evolution” on the issue until he had been safely re-elected and begun his second term?

Some observers see the new position as a desperate attempt to bring new energy and oomph to the campaign’s lagging fundraising, and sure enough the president sent out a melodramatic money-begging message (“If you agree, you can stand up with me here”) the same day he made the big announcement. But in a race where each side will raise and spend in excess of a billion dollars, it’s hard to imagine that a few extra million from gay activists (or even hundreds of millions) would alter the outcome decisively.

There’s also the argument that President Obama needed some bold, “visionary” proposal in order to mobilize the idealism of young people, or else they’d shrug off the prodigious efforts that helped secure his election last time. But this notion ignores the fact that the president and Congress can’t really change the law on gay marriage since the Constitution leaves it to the states (or, possibly, the Supreme Court) to decide. Moreover, the president’s switch may actually produce a more passionate response on the right than the left, activating social conservatives who were previously lukewarm toward Mitt Romney, rather than inspiring members of the lefty-slacker base who were previously lukewarm about Barack Obama.

The real reason for the president’s sudden decision to reverse course on gay marriage almost certainly involves a very different sort of calculation: a desperate desire to distract attention from economic issues in order to avoid the imminent collapse of his campaign. After Friday’s sour jobs report, the evidence of anti-incumbent fever from Indiana to France, rumblings of potential catastrophe in the eurozone, and deeply alarming poll numbers on the economy, the administration will do anything to change the subject.

An April Washington Post-ABC News poll showed those who “strongly disapproved” of Obama’s handling of the economy outnumbered those who “strongly approved” by nearly 2-to-1 (42-23 percent). Moreover, the percentage who strongly disapproved of his economic stewardship stood even higher than it did in late October, 2010 – on the eve of the historic Republican sweep that captured 63 formerly Democratic House seats. James (“It’s the Economy, Stupid!”) Carville sounded the alarm on CNN about the need for his fellow Democrats to “WTFU”—or “Wake The F**k Up”—before they blow the election and hand Republicans a victory they don’t deserve.

Where liberals once attacked George W. Bush for talking about gay marriage in order to take the focus away from his failures on the economy and foreign policy, it’s now Barack Obama who wants to talk about gay marriage (and, where possible, foreign policy) to draw attention from his epic failures on the economy.

In the process of dragging the nation back toward the darkest days of our toxic culture wars, the president hands his GOP opponents two precious gifts—if they muster the wit to use them.

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First, and most obviously, his reversal on same sex marriage will help to neutralize the “Flip Flop” factor that Democrats hoped to use against Romney, as the president’s own sharply contradictory statements on marriage (combined with his pathetic “I’m evolving” dodge) constitute the Mother of All Flip Flops. Even now, eager-beaver conservative media wizards must be working on the assembly of attack ads featuring the great Obama vs. Obama debate.

Second, and more significantly, Obama’s odd effort to insert a polarizing and unnecessary new issue into the presidential campaign utterly undermines his feeble insistence that he still means to unify the country. Same-sex marriage remains wildly controversial: the most recent Gallup Poll shows only 50 percent who want legal recognition of gay relationships, a slight decrease from the 53 percent who expressed support last year. Meanwhile 40 percent of Independents and even 34 percent of Democrats (not to mention 74 percent of Republicans!) expressed the opinion that gay unions “should not be legal.”

Barack Obama won election on a surge of optimism based on endlessly repeated promises to transcend our old and tired differences—bridging gaps between black and white, rich and poor, Christian and secular, gay and straight. With the new, administration-driven concentration on gay marriage (no one on the right was spoiling for this fight) the Great Healer has become the Great Divider.

Of course, Democratic partisans hope the president will gain from positioning himself as a Profile in Courage, ready to risk political damage to stand up to bigotry. But his wavering and equivocal history on the marriage issue more properly suggests a profile in Jell-O. Just as his days of staunchly opposing same-sex marriage never outraged gay activists because they didn’t believe he really meant it, so now his new position of support won’t profoundly inspire them because they can’t believe he really means it. On both sides, the preening president gives the puzzling impression of cold but clumsy calculation that looks simultaneously inept and insincere.