Monday, December 19, 2011

Obama and Gay Issues

The Politico has an article on President Obama and his "pitch to gay voters." The article discusses the sometimes tumultuous relationship between Obama and the LGBT social movement community. The article quotes many commentators who discuss what Obama can do to energize LGBT voters. Some commentators encourage him to endorse same-sex marriage. Others point out that he has done more to advance LGBT rights than any other president. I have responses to both of these observations.

Same-Sex Marriage: Do Not Expect An Endorsement

First, on the subject of same-sex marriage, I doubt that Obama will publicly endorse same-sex marriage before the 2012 election. Things could change, but if public opinion remains relatively constant on this issue leading into November, Obama's position will remain the same ("I do not support it, but I do not support laws banning it"). If his opinion evolves, it could become "I support it, but I believe this is a matter for states to decide" or simply "This is a matter for states to decide."

Why all of the doubt? Most opinion polls show that a majority of the public opposes same-sex marriage. While opposition is the highest among conservative voters, liberals and moderates also oppose marriage equality. Some recent opinion polls (see Politico article) show that a slim majority of the public approves of same-sex marriage, but these polls contradict the results of most other surveys.

In order to win the election, President Obama needs black and Latino voters to come out in droves and support him again. No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white voters since 1964; this statistic applies to Obama as well.

Black and Latino voters were instrumental in delivering several key states to Obama, including Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, Ohio, and North Carolina. Same-sex marriage is not a key issue among these voter.

Also, it is unclear whether (and doubtful that) LGBT voters constitute a swing vote in any tough race for Obama. Moreover, pro-LGBT voters probably will not run from Obama if he does not support same-sex marriage.

Politics is about strategy more than ideology. If Obama believes he can win without endorsing same-sex marriage -- which was true in 2008 -- he will decline to do so.

Obama Has Done More For LGBT Rights Than Any Other President

Commentators who defend Obama often argue that he has done more for LGBT rights than any other president. The claim has some validity. During his presidency, Obama has encouraged and secured the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  The Department of Justice has stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act and now considers it unconstitutional. Also, Obama has advocated extending federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Pro-LGBT individuals should certainly applaud these developments and Obama for overseeing them.

Nevertheless, the observation regarding Obama's contributions to gay rights bothers me for two reasons. First, this argument discounts the role that social movement actors played in generating these changes. Presidents do not simply change policies to help disadvantaged groups because they are benevolent. Instead, they respond to pressure from and changes in the political climate caused by social movement activity.

LGBT social movement actors have been among Obama's most vocal liberal critics. They have also managed to influence public opinion on LGBT issues. Accordingly, it is not surprising that Obama has modified and taken a stance against antigay policies.

The observation about Obama's contributions to gay rights is also troubling because it is ahistorical. In the past, the changes that have recently occurred with respect to LGBT rights were not imaginable. The LGBT rights movement did not even become a major political player until the 1980s. Also, public opinion on LGBT rights has evolved over time, in part due to the activism of LGBT political actors and individuals.

Accordingly, a president in 2012 should definitely be able to check off more individual accomplishments in this area than, say, a president in 1950. But that does not imply that the contemporary president is bolder or more committed on the subject. Instead, this gap simply reflects the evolving political and social climate on this subject.

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