Barack Obama has once again assured his place in the history of the American presidency.
Obama acted courageously, if carefully, this week in becoming the first American president to openly support gay marriage. In doing so, he took substantial risks -- with religious black and Latino voters, who would normally be potential core constituents; with older voters, who grew up at a time in which gay-bashing was just as common and, in some quarters, at least as acceptable as racial bigotry; and in southern states like North Carolina and Virginia, where the fight for electoral votes will be central in the 2012 presidential election's outcome. Obama's words undoubtedly have energized the evangelical GOP base that didn't care much for Mitt Romney but will now flock to the polls. And the president spoke to the issue just a day after North Carolina voters affirmed their opposition to gay marriage by an overwhelming margin.
But Obama did what was right. Give him credit for that. The denial of marriage rights to gay and lesbian Americans is every bit as much a civil rights issue as was Jim Crow in the South and laws barring interracial marriage that weren't removed from the books in many states until 45 years ago. In doing what was right, Obama also took an astute gamble that just might help him politically. Surely his actions will energize a thus-far lukewarm liberal Democratic base; will play well among all voters younger than 30 or 35, and will help fill campaign coffers. It also may force Mitt Romney to placate the ugliest faction of the rigid Republican right by focusing more on social issues than he'd like in a year when being a businessman might play to his advantage.
What I don't accept are those straining to interpret Obama's actions in pure political terms. "Is Obama's gay marriage stance all about suburban voters?" asked MSNBC.
"Obama campaign hopes marriage equality support a boon for fundraising," chimed London's Guardian. And "Obama's same-sex marriage reversal rooted in principle or politics?" asked a Fox News headline (Since this came from the Sean Hannity show, you can guess that the answer is negative and inflammatory).
Much closer to the reality of the moment is this lead from the Bloomberg wire service, reprinted at washingtonpost.com.
President Barack Obama's endorsement of gay marriage marked a rare moment of risk-taking on the most divisive civil-rights issue in the nation, changing the dynamics of his race for re-election.
For all the criticism the president has attracted over time, on everything from the economy to his past timidity in the face of GOP bullying and intransigence, Obama on balance has much to stand on in this first term. Following the worst recession since the Great Depression, he has kept this country in a lot better shape than most of our European allies. He can reasonably claim credit for having rescued the American automobile industry. He tracked down Osama bin Laden, ended the Iraq War, and stopped discrimination against gay and lesbians in the military. Now, he has stepped to the political lead in speaking out on what is perhaps the biggest civil rights issue of the 21st century. A politicized Supreme Court may yet dismantle his moderate but important step forward on health care. A determined Republican ring wing may even succeed in denying him re-election in part by disenfranchising poor and minority voters.
But, at a time when a significant minority of Americans is working feverishly to roll back the clock to a time when a white, male old boys network called all the shots, the president has made clear that as long as he is in charge, he will not let them.