Obama’s Marriage Reversal Not That Big a Deal

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Photo: Pete Souza/White House Photo via Getty Images

For those of us who support gay marriage, President Obama’s long-standing veiled pseudo-support for gay marriage was frustrating (or worse), and his abandonment thereof elating. But how much does it matter? Jonathan Rauch is uncharacteristically exuberant:

... there’s a real possibility that his efforts for gay equality will prove to be his most enduring legacy. The history books may remember Obama for doing for gays what Lyndon Johnson did for African Americans: Leading his party across a bridge to an irrevocable position on civil rights.

Let’s put aside health care (and I suspect, even if the Supreme Court strikes down all the coverage provisions, the efficiency revolution Obamacare instigated in American medicine will have long-standing repercussions.) The Johnson comparison is pretty nuts. Johnson’s primary contribution to the civil-rights cause was to pass a federal law. The need to pass a federal law was the central problem of the civil-rights crusade, and the barriers to passing such a law in Congress had been the main impediment to the cause for two decades.

Obama has not passed or even proposed a law. The gay rights question remains a state matter. That’s exactly why Obama was able to maintain his obviously insincere formal opposition to gay marriage for so long — because his formal endorsement had no practical consequences.

Now, symbolically, it matters. Obama’s imprimatur will probably hasten Democratic loyalists who don’t accept gay marriage — and there are a lot of them — into more readily accepting it. It will cement open support for gay marriage as an essential plank in the party platform (or, to phrase it the way people do when they want to spin these things negatively, an “ideological litmus test.") It’s also possible that Obama will be remembered for his gay-rights stance as a primary part of his legacy, in the way Teddy Roosevelt is remembered for the teddy bear and George Washington for the cherry tree. But as far as being a capstone to Obama’s legacy, or even a major element of it, this won’t even be close.