Jay Carney, the White House Press Secretary, attempted to clarify the president's position on marriage equality today. What the White House has yet to clarify is how Barack Obama went from supporting marriage equality in 1996 to not supporting marriage equality in 2008. We hear you, Jay, we hear you: the president's position on marriage equality is evolving. That's your buzzword and you're sticking to it. But it's rare to see a politician evolve both ways on an issue like marriage equality. The president was for it, then he was against it, and now the president is presumably evolving back towards his previous position on marriage equality.
Explain that, Jay.
He can't, of course, because it would require him—it would require the president—to admit to having made a cold, political calculation. A presidential candidate who supported marriage equality in 2008 would not have won the election. Period. Obama changed his position on marriage equality for the same reason George H. W. Bush changed his position on abortion: to get elected. And anyone who expects Obama to change his position on marriage equality before the 2012 election—expects him to change it back—is being naive. It's fine to ask the president to change his position, it's fine and necessary to continue to demand that he change his position. But we shouldn't fool ourselves about the likelihood or the wisdom of that shift coming anytime soon. From this weekend's NYT's piece on Obama's evolution on marriage equality:
The White House would not comment on whether Mr. Obama was ready to endorse same-sex marriage. But one Democratic strategist close to the White House, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said some senior advisers “are looking at the tactics of how this might be done if the president chose to do it.” ... But with the political climate around gay rights changing drastically—a handful of recent polls show that Americans, by a slim majority, now support same-sex marriage—some strategists see little political cost to a shift in position.
Before I risk publicly disagreeing with "some strategists" let me say with this: I think the president should come out in support of marriage equality. I think everyone should. And I believe Obama supported marriage equality in 1996, and I think he supports it now. But I also believe that Barack Obama will pay a political price—a potentially determinative price—if he endorses marriage equality before the 2012 election. Because Republicans who support marriage equality aren't going to vote for Barack Obama in 2012 just because he came out for marriage equality. But Democrats who don't support marriage equality are likely to vote against Obama if he does.
Obama's team, I expect, realizes this (they're probably polling it as I type), and their mission is to get the president reelected. Our mission is to secure our full civil equality and I don't see how a Romney/Bachmann administration gets us closer to that goal. The country is moving our way, time is on our side, and I expect that Obama's kabuki evolution will pick up a serious head of steam sometime in January of 2013. Who knows? The president could wind up evolving all the way back to 1996.
But there will be no evolutionary leaps between now and November of 2012.