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Obama Endorses Gay Marriage—Kinda. Now What? | The Nation

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Richard Kim

Richard Kim

 Short takes on politics, culture and life.

Obama Endorses Gay Marriage—Kinda. Now What?

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Via ABC News

In an interview today with GMA’s Robin Roberts, President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. Coming off days of intense speculation and pressure on the White House to clarify the president’s position and explain how it squares with recent comments by Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan apparently indicating support for same-sex marriage, the announcement has already been widely praised by progressives and gay rights advocates.

“President Obama’s ‘evolution’ is now complete. Congratulations, Mr. President, for making history today by becoming the first sitting president to explicitly support marriage for same-sex couples,” said NGLTF executive director Rea Carey in a press release. “This is a great day for America.”

In the interview, Obama continued with the theme of his “evolving” thinking on same-sex marriage, telling Roberts:

I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.

Obama, however, stopped short of lending full support to the multi-state legal and political campaign for marriage equality. According to ABC News, the president stressed that his is a “personal position,” and that he continues to think that states should decide the issue independently.

In at least one crucial way then, Obama’s announcement stops short of a full reversal of policy. In the past, Obama has said that he thinks that “gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and legal protections that straight couples already enjoy,” but does not endorse same-sex marriage per se. This is not a coherent position. There simply is no legal category outside of marriage that grants same-sex couples all the rights and legal protections that straight couples enjoy—not civil unions, not domestic partnership arrangements. Only marriage recognized at the federal level and in all fifty states would do that.

Today, by endorsing a “states’ rights” approach to same-sex marriage, Obama essentially preserves the current status quo in which a handful of states recognize same-sex marriage and many states have constitutional bans against them. That is not marriage equality, and does not even reach the standard Obama previously embraced of equal rights and recognitions. Significantly, in the clip released by ABC News, Obama does not mention overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, the law currently under legal challenge that permits states to refuse to recognize marriages performed in other states and defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The Obama Justice Department recently declined to defend the latter part of DOMA in federal court, and the Obama administration has said they support repealing DOMA, supporting Senator Feinstein's Respect for Marriage Act.

Now the conversation shifts to the political consequences of his endorsement, and there’s already lots of chatter about how this might cost him the election or at least damage his chances in a few swing states, like North Carolina, which overwhelmingly passed an anti–gay marriage amendment yesterday.

I never say this, but: don’t worry. It won’t matter either way.

In a recent PEW poll, gay marriage polled eighteenth on a list of issues, with just 28 percent of voters saying that it is a “very important” issue. This trails obvious election setters like the economy (86 percent), jobs (84 percent), healthcare (74 percent) and other issues down the line like Iran (47 percent), gun control (47 percent) and even the GOP’s cause of the day, birth control (34 percent).

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A few updates:

First, I’ve been criticized for being a negative Nelly—and it’s true, I am! While I stand by my analysis of Obama’s “states’ rights” approach, let me just say for the record that I applaud the president for saying what he said. He didn’t need to, and it’s not clear it will have political benefits. It took a measure of principle and guts. His remarks will have far-reaching and important cultural and political implications, and while it is overdue and more tepid than I would have liked, it moves him along the arc of justice. So thank you, Mr. President.

Now for more negativity: I’ve always held the view that the state should recognize a range of family formations and dependencies. See my article with Lisa Duggan for a summary. While I’m for full legal equality—whatever straights can have, gays should have too—the current marriage debate doesn’t really open a great window into the range of care-giving relations people have on the ground and the need to expand the recognition of those.

On the subject of any political fallout, beyond the Pew poll that shows that voters rank same-sex marriage very low on the list of priorities, there are a few other reasons to think Obama’s statement will either be a small boon or a wash. Independents have moved dramatically to embrace same-sex marriage to the point where over half of them support it. Young voters in particular favor same-sex marriage, and it’s possible today’s announcement energizes portions of Obama’s base. It will also almost certainly avoid a food fight at the DNC about the Democratic Party platform. Twenty-two Democratic senators, along with Elizabeth Warren and Caroline Kennedy, have called for a pro-gay marriage plank—and so Obama’s decision dodges one potential bad optic.

Don’t read too much into North Carolina’s passage of an anti-gay amendment yesterday. Yes, the vote was lopsided (61 percent in favor). But the turnout was low and concentrated among conservatives. In some polls, 53 percent of North Carolina voters support either same-sex marriage or civil unions, and yesterday’s vote didn’t reflect that. In a high-turnout election, the demographics will tilt in the right direction for Obama.

Yes, it’s true that the right-wing has already started frothing at the mouth. But they already think he’s a Muslim, communist traitor. It’s hard to see just how much more motivated they can get. What the right needs to grease the conservative turnout is not just a stark contrast in presidential candidates (which they now have in Obama and Romney), but state-ballot initiatives that motivate the grassroots, especially when the top of the GOP ticket is so meh.

They won’t have those this time around. In 2004, eleven states had anti-gay marriage amendments on the books, and there’s some speculation that it boosted Bush’s turnout (others disagree). Since then, some states have legalized same-sex marriage (like New York). Others have passed constitutional bans (like North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Arizona and Colorado—all swing states). This leaves few states on the map where the right-wing can get an initiative on the ballot in November; the only one scheduled right now is Minnesota, where Obama leads Romney by 10-13 percentage points. No swell in right-wing turnout motivated solely by gay marriage is going to erase that lead.

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