As anyone who's paying attention knows, Barack Obama does not support gay marriage. He's also been relatively muted in his opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment in California that would end marriage equality there.
Yet there they were at Seattle's Gay Pride Parade on June 29, marching down Fourth Avenue under a blazingly hot sun—scores of gay voters sweating as they held aloft iconic Obama placards that had been retooled in rainbow colors for Pride. Their implicit promise: We will vote for you no matter which way you move on our issues, because you're better than the alternative.
It's a promise that Obama is counting on receiving from constituent groups across the Democratic spectrum as he dashes, post-nomination-fight and pre-convention, toward the safe political center.
And quite a dash it's been. In the last few weeks, Obama has upset huge swaths of the liberal base in rapid-fire fashion. When the U.S. Supreme Court banned executing child rapists, Obama announced that he disagreed with the court's decision—reminding everyone that he supports the death penalty, and making clear that he wants it to be handed out to people who rape children even though it has traditionally been reserved only for murderers.
"I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes," Obama told reporters, trying to walk a fine line but mainly, as far as death penalty opponents on the left were concerned, highlighting a huge point of disagreement between him and them. (For example, Liliana Segura, a writer for the liberal online publication AlterNet, heatedly described Obama's move as "a reactionary political calculation.")
The next day, the Supreme Court struck down a handgun ban in Washington, D.C., giving gun-rights advocates a historic victory and providing Obama an occasion to remind Americans that he supports gun rights. With liberal gun-control advocates smarting from the sweeping ruling, Obama cast the court's decision as being in sync with a view he'd long held. "I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms," Obama said. He added some lines about supporting the efforts of "crime-ravaged communities" to stem the scourge of gun violence, but his intent was clearly to distance himself from the kind of gun-control measures the court had struck down—despite that fact that his own campaign had once said he supported those very measures.
All of this came on top of the fact that Obama had just reversed himself on another issue important to parts of the liberal base, the renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In the past, Obama had said he would oppose the FISA bill because it grants immunity from prosecution to the telecom companies that aided President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. Now Obama says the bill is "not all that I would want," but that it's good enough and necessary to protect Americans. This reversal has been particularly resonant among the online liberal "netroots." On MyBarackObama.com, a group calling on Obama to "Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity" and "Get FISA Right" quickly became one of the larger groups on the site.
The question is whether Obama cares. Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times about these and other disappointments, wondered if Obama would end up letting down the ideological left in a manner similar to the last Democratic president, the center-grabbing Bill Clinton.
"Progressive activists, in particular, overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama during the Democratic primary even though his policy positions, particularly on health care, were often to the right of his rivals'," Krugman wrote. "In effect, they convinced themselves that he was a transformational figure behind a centrist facade. They may have had it backward."
This sense was given even more support when, two days after Krugman's column, Obama announced that he not only supports Bush's controversial Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, but wants to expand its programs in his own administration—and then, to defend himself from charges of fuzzing up the boundary between church and state, Obama provided reporters a supportive quote from a man who once headed the office. Under Bush.
That seemed to answer the question of whether Obama cares. He has made his calculation. He believes the liberal base, after eight years of chafing under Bush and presented with his historic candidacy and a great shot at winning the White House, will, like those marchers at the Seattle Pride Parade, gleefully throw themselves under his bus.
He's probably right.