So President Obama has said he is in favor of same-sex marriage. The announcement may be, as the RNC is saying, evidence that the president is playing politics. Or, it may have been a historic moment that simply couldn’t wait. It could also be political suicide.
But was it good leadership?
On the one hand, Obama seems to have been pushed into the decision. The statement came the very day after the swing state of North Carolina voted for an amendment to ban same-sex marriage and just days after vice president Joe Biden blurted out that he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage. This timing made the president look like he was reacting rather than leading from the front. Typically, you want the president setting the agenda, not his second in command setting it.
Even if the White House says it had been planning to announce the decision before the Democratic National Convention, and that Biden’s gaffe (or trial balloon) accelerated the timing, the whole thing — especially the hastily arranged Wednesday afternoon interview with a morning show host — ran the risk of looking a little more like political calculus than a from-the-gut call on principle. If he came to the decision a while ago, some gay-marriage supporters might ask, why not speak openly about it sooner? Or at least when he traveled to North Carolina in April and perhaps could have swung a few votes?
On the flip side, however, Obama is now the first president to come out, as so many headline writers have delighted in saying, for gay marriage. That’s no small thing: The statement ranks up there with the Stonewall riots, Harvey Milk’s election and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a major moment in gay rights history.
Yet what about that timing?
Although it’s hard to argue Biden’s influence wasn’t a factor, Obama may have held back until after the North Carolina primary on purpose in order to look a little less like he was playing politics. Just like the leader who holds off on sharing his opinion on a subject until everyone else has spoken, Obama may not have wanted to look like he’s trying to throw his weight around.
And like most acts of leadership, the president’s decision comes with plenty of risk. Many of the African American voters who supported him so enthusiastically in 2008 are opposed to same-sex marriage. The Catholic Latin American community Democrats have been courting may have trouble voting for a president who advocates same-sex marriage. And the decision is likely to cost him some Christian independent swing-state voters who are on the fence about how to cast their votes.
While the president’s decision may not be as bold as it could have been, and may not have put him at the forefront of the issue, it was still an act of courage that has undeniable historic implications. It is likely to roil the presidential campaign, and is a risky move, the outcome of which no one knows. In the end, as Jonathan Rauch writes at The Brookings Institution’s site, Obama seems to have decided it was worth the gamble. The timing was right, or, at least, far more powerful than if he made the statement as a lame-duck president. And that, after all, is a key element of leadership: Raising one’s voice when, even if not the perfect moment, it still has the opportunity to make the biggest impact.
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