President Obama today became the first American president to endorse same-sex marriage, telling ABC News‘s Robin Roberts: “it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” His record on LGBT equality has not been perfect, but it is one area where he has been quite impressive. He engineered the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. His Justice Department is refusing to defend the constitutionality of DOMA in court, a very unusual step. He has ushered in a series of important federal spousal benefits for gay employees of the federal government. And now, for the first time, the office of the American President is officially supporting a policy that a mere decade ago was deemed truly radical: same-sex marriage. Those are real achievements. And, as virtually all polls reflect – underscored by last night’s landslide defeat for marriage equality in North Carolina — they carry genuine political risk. He deserves credit for his actions in this civil rights realm.***
It may very well be true that Obama took this step not out of any genuine conviction, but because he perceives that high levels of enthusiasm among the Democratic base generally and gay donors specifically are necessary for his re-election, or because Biden’s comments forced his hand, or any number of other tactical reasons. I don’t know what his secret motives are, but even if they could be discerned, I think it’s irrelevant.
When it comes to assessing a politician, what matters, at least to me, are actions, not motives. If they do the wrong thing, they should be criticized regardless of motive; conversely, if they do the right thing, they should be credited. I’ve had zero tolerance over the last three years for people who pop up to justify all the horrible things Obama has done by claiming that he is forced to do them out of political necessity or in cowardly deference to public opinion; that’s because horrible acts don’t become less horrible because they’re prompted by some rational, self-interested political motive rather than conviction. That’s equally true of positive acts: they don’t become less commendable because they were the by-product of political pressure or self-preservation; when a politician takes the right course of action, as Obama did today, credit is merited, regardless of motive.
I was actually thinking about this on the way home, when I heard on NPR that Obama had made these remarks. My first thought was genuine surprise, as I thought he would never make an announcement like this until after the election. It’s just a risky position, and he rarely takes that kind of risk.
My next thought was that I bet people are going to be heaping praise on him, but all he has really done is express an opinion. What he should be really praised for are all the many things he and his administration have done, some of which Glenn mentioned, but that was really just the tip of the iceberg- check this exhaustive list of advances for gay rights. I’d cut and paste it, but it would scroll 4-5 pages.
That isn’t an “impressive” record. It’s AMAZING. That’s what flummoxes me about many activists. Those are real accomplishments, yet we still had folks (Dan Choi, Aravosis, I’m looking at you) flaming the President. Contrary to what Glenn says, the President stating he supports same-sex marriage isn’t an action, it’s a statement. What is listed here are real actions. Yet most of those accomplishments received little fanfare or were even downplayed by the very same activists who today are doing cartwheels over “just words.” It’s almost as if for some activists, affirmation is more important than accomplishments.
Don’t get me wrong, I think what happened today is a big deal, and I recognize how important it is and I am very glad it has happened. And I understand that affirmation in this context, by the most powerful politician in the country, can be a game-changer But even if Obama had maintained his earlier position on same-sex marriage, he still has done more to advance gay rights than any other President, by a ridiculously wide margin. Faced with a congress more hostile than what Bill Clinton ever faced, he is UNDOING much of the damage inflicted on the gay community by none other than Bill Clinton.