As the cause of marriage equality has become steadily more popular, President Obama’s unwillingness to embrace it stands out like a bit of a sore thumb. That’s especially true because many people agree with David Remnick (via Ta-Nehisi Coates) that Obama’s stance on this issue was driven by political fear given the exigencies of the 2008 election. I participated in a 2007 off-the-record chat with Obama during the 2007 edition of Netroots Nation in Chicago that strongly left me with the impression that Obama’s view on the subject was purely tactical: Marriage equality campaigners were, in his view, being politically counterproductive for the larger cause of LGBT rights.
But whatever lurks in Obama’s heart—see his timeline of shifting stated views if you want to confuse yourself—it’s worth noting something here. There are a number of important issues — comprehensive immigration reform, carbon pricing, card check unionization — where Obama has a stated position on the progressive side but there’s no clear operational path by which the administration’s activities will lead to its stated goals. On marriage equality, it’s exactly the reverse situation. Obama is “against” it. But his administration has put forward a legal theory about the unconstitutional of the Defense of Marriage Act that plainly implies that marriage discrimination writ large is unconstitutional. What’s more, he’s appointing Supreme Court justices who presumably agree with his legal philosophy. It’s plausible that some day in the near future, Justice Kennedy will vote with the four progressive justices and act on this principle of anti-discrimination. It’s also plausible that if Obama is re-elected that either Kennedy or Justice Scalia (both of whom were born in 1936) will step down and be replaced by a pro-equality Obama appointee.
None of that changes the fact that today is always a good day to do the right thing and stand up for justice. And Obama’s nominal opposition creates a talking point that equality opponents can use in their own arguments. Still, it’s worth noting that there’s a pretty clear path by which Obama’s political success leads to victory on marriage equality in a way that’s not actually true for other issues that he’s embraced more explicitly.