Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I Do! Suddenly, Obama Endorses Marriage Equality (Updated)

President Obama stated today that he supports marriage equality. The administration's position on this issue has suddenly evolved. Throughout his candidacy and for all of his first-term (until today), President Obama has stated that he personally opposes same-sex marriage. At the same time, he has stated that he opposes efforts to make it illegal (specifically making that argument in the context of California's Proposition 8).

Last weekend, however, Vice President Joe Biden stated during an interview that he supports marriage equality. The Obama administration immediately began walking back the comments. Instead of supporting marriage equality, both Biden and the President supposedly endorsed only "equal benefits" for same- and opposite-sex couples. Now, just a couple days after clarifying his stance, Obama has suddenly reached a new position favoring same-sex marriage.

Political Implications
Since I am already extremely cynical about politics and politicians, this move does not surprise me. Obama's shifting positions on same-sex marriage, however, put a wrinkle in any strategy that seeks to portray Mitt Romney as a waffler. Because it seems that Obama will instead portray Romney as a "severe conservative," perhaps he does not deem the appearance of waffling too important. Certainly, Romney cannot use that line of attack against Obama.

Also, Obama's new position should do much to impress or at least silence critics of Obama's record with respect to LGBT rights. Obama has endorsed the "crow-jewel" of the contemporary LGBT social movement. Indeed, during his presidency, Obama has been more responsive to LGBT politics than to any other liberal cause. LGBT social movements deserve a lot of credit for pressuring the president on these issues. Also, because these issues typically involve questions of formal equality, endorsing them is not particularly threatening -- relative to questions of equal opportunity and economic distribution.

Obama, Race and Poverty
With respect to equal opportunity and wealth concerns, it is deeply troubling that the groups who are most vigorous in their support of Obama get less attention from him in terms of policy. Blacks and Latinos delivered Obama the 2008 election by helping him win key swing states. Without black support, Obama would, in fact, have lost many blue states. A majority of white voters in many states that are deemed liberal voted for McCain and have selected Republican presidential candidates in the recent past.

Despite their value to and overwhelming support for Obama, poor people and persons of color, many of whom are LGBT, cannot get the type of visible support for and quick responses to their concerns as LGBT groups. In September 2011 after some black members of Congress complained that Obama was not paying attention to poverty and unemployment among blacks, he said in response: "Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying."  Obama has never never used this type of harsh rhetoric in response to complaints from other liberal constituents, including LGBT individuals. I highly doubt that he would ever do so.

Racial justice movements, however, bear some of the blame for the president's silence on many race and poverty issues. Racial justice activists have been very generous in their support of Obama, and they have refrained from criticizing him for the most part.  Tavis Smiley and Cornell West are popular exceptions -- yet they have received very harsh criticism from blacks for their critiques of Obama. Some of Smiley's and West's criticisms have been unfair and somewhat personal, but the responses to their arguments from many black commentators seem to oppose any criticism of President Obama on issues of race.

Even Rev. Al Sharpton, who has criticized other presidents and candidates for not openly addressing the "concerns" of blacks, has defended Obama's reluctance to address issues of race and poverty. Sharpton has stated that Obama must solve these issues in a colorblind fashion, which contradicts the race-conscious politics he has advocated in the past and in which he continues to engage. Sharpton has also dismissed Obama's critics as being biased. What evidence does he offer to support this accusation? Some of them supported Hilary Clinton in 2008 (gasp!).

If having a black president means virtual silence on issues of race in the White House, then Obama's election seems only to provide symbolic gains with respect to race. Poor persons of color need material change -- not symbols.

UPDATE: Does Obama really support marriage equality under the law? See this important update: Obama's "Support" of Marriage Equality: Read the Fine Print.

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