President Obama's support for civil unions but not gay marriage has always been a somewhat odd — and, you get the feeling, perhaps disingenuous — position. For one thing, if he really believes that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, as he's often said, why doesn't he support laws that ensure marriage will only be between a man and a woman, such as California's Prop 8? And how could someone so progressive on gay issues in general — he's against the Defense of Marriage Act, he's against "don't ask, don't tell," he's already appointed more gays than any president ever, he's equated the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement and has spoken often of equality for gay people — be behind the curve on gay marriage? Plus, there were those questionnaires he filled out in 1996, in which he expressed his support for gay marriage years before even civil unions first took hold in Vermont. When you add it all up, the only conclusion that really makes sense is that, in his heart, Obama is fine with gay marriage, but didn't think the nation was ready for a president who felt that way.
But an interesting thing happened over the course of only the past couple of years: Approval of gay marriage surged, it was legalized in a number of states, and Obama's support for civil unions, which would have been considered relatively enlightened five or ten years ago, began to seem downright antiquated to many people. As various leaders of the Democratic Party switched from the civil-unions camp to the gay-marriage camp — Bill Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Howard Dean, and Chris Dodd, to name a few — Obama has been stuck in an early-aughts mentality, at least publicly.
But from what he told a group of liberal bloggers yesterday, that may change fairly soon. When AMERICAblog's Joe Subday asked Obama about his position on gay marriage ("People in our community are really desperate to know"), Obama all but admitted he was in the process of abandoning his civil-unions stance:
"I am a strong supporter of civil unions."
Okay, it doesn't seem like it at first. But read on!
"As you say, I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage.
But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine. And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships. I have staff members who are in committed, monogamous relationships, who are raising children, who are wonderful parents.
And I care about them deeply. And so while I’m not prepared to reverse myself here, sitting in the Roosevelt Room at 3:30 in the afternoon, I think it’s fair to say that it’s something that I think a lot about. That’s probably the best you’ll do out of me today." (Laughter.)
It's not all that subtle what Obama is communicating here: He's going to announce his support for gay marriage. When exactly that will happen is unclear, but former Clinton adviser Richard Socarides's logic makes sense: "Presidents don't usually think out loud unless they intend to send a signal that they are shifting a position. I think [Obama] realizes he can't run as a gay rights advocate in 2012 and be against marriage equality."
If Obama does support gay marriage during his 2012 campaign, it would be a historic milestone for gay rights. After he finally announces his change of heart, he'll have to defend it, repeatedly, at the behest of journalists and debate moderators and regular people who ask questions at town halls. He'll have to explain to America why gay marriage is the right thing to do, how it comports with the country's most fundamental values. Coming from a sitting president seeking another term, his arguments will be inherently mainstream.
That it took a while for Obama to get there, especially if you chalk up the delay to selfish political calculations he made at the cost of honest leadership, might temper the excitement of gay-rights supporters. There's nothing praiseworthy about holding your finger to the wind on basic issues of human equality, if that's indeed what he's done. But the fact that the winds have shifted enough for a cautious, politically sensitive politician like Obama to shift with them? That says a lot.