President Obama shocked the political establishment this week by completing his 19-month “evolution” and publicly endorsing marriage equality.
“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 made the remarks to ABC News’ Robin Roberts, an interesting choice for the interview given she has long battled rumors of being a closeted lesbian.)
It was a bold statement for Obama to make during what will undoubtedly be a close general election contest against Mitt Romney. But bold leadership is what we should expect from our elected officials. Romney can’t decide whether to wear jeans or roll up his sleeves during campaign stops without consulting a pollster. Obama’s brave decision this week again exposes Romney for the weak, unprincipled flip-flopper that even the most loyal Republican voters know him to be.
Yes, Obama should have done it sooner — preferably before North Carolina voters decided Tuesday to enshrine discrimination in their constitution. He shouldn’t have let his own vice president and Cabinet members get in front of him on the issue. And this surely wasn’t planned. Vice President Joe Biden’s unexpected marriage endorsement on Sunday, followed by all the laughable efforts at damage control by the campaign and the White House press secretary forced Obama’s hand.
But none of that matters now. For the first time, we have a sitting president unafraid to say publicly what we all assumed he believed privately — that same-sex couples deserve the rights of marriage. Kudos to Obama for not waiting until after the election — or until after he leaves office — to make this announcement. Too many public officials, including President Clinton and Vice President Dick Cheney, have waited until they left office to announce their support of marriage equality. Not exactly profiles in courage. But Obama is different. He’s deliberate and contemplative and, yes, he sometimes takes a while to make a decision, but once it’s made he communicates and leads. That’s what a president ought to do.
And now politicians from both parties can point to Obama’s precedent-setting leadership and announce their own support. Can Hillary Clinton and other sitting Cabinet members be far behind? Obama’s announcement will inspire others who have remained quiet allies to come out in full support of LGBT equality.
Obama’s decision certainly means that support for marriage equality will become the default position of Democratic presidential nominees going forward. Who could have foreseen this moment just 20 years ago? President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act and bragged about it in campaign radio ads. John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and other Democratic contenders took gay money and votes while cynically delivering nothing more than lip service to our issues. President Bush used marriage as a wedge issue in 2004 and called for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in his State of the Union Address. Then Obama came along and promised change and boy did he deliver this week.
But let’s not be lulled into complacency by this historic moment. It’s not the end of the road for the LGBT movement, but rather a promising new beginning. This question of will-he-or-won’t-he has sucked too much oxygen from the movement and so we must now move on to other pressing issues, like barring discrimination against LGBT workers in both the public and private sectors. Not everyone wants to get married, but everyone has to work. Obama should sign an executive order barring workplace bias against LGBT employees of federal contractors. And Congress needs to revive the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has languished since the 1970s.
The road ahead is long, but the LGBT movement took a huge leap forward this week. LGBT voters should line up and fight to ensure President Obama’s re-election.