Culturally, one can make the case that the president of the United States declaring his support for marriage equality is a watershed moment. Morally, one can argue that it is a great moment to have the most visible politician in the world take this stand. On an individual level for many of those fighting for their rights and for respect, the support of the president of the United States may be enormously important.
In other words, I don’t want to say that the only question, or even most important one, arising from President Obama’s comments today is about November 2012.
But if we just look at this year’s elections, what do we see? My guess is that, as an electoral event, Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage is about 99 percent hype.
For those who strongly support Obama’s new position, it’s unlikely that this changes anything. Yes, some marriage-equality advocates had talked about withholding support unless the president “evolved.” But realistically, there was no way that political activists — people accustomed to the normal give-and-take of politics — were not going to appreciate the wide gulf between Obama and Mitt Romney on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Without this statement they might have needed more careful tending, but they weren’t going to walk away from their best ever ally in the White House.
The same is true for strong opponents of Obama’s new position. It’s highly unlikely that anyone who, otherwise was fine voting for Obama despite disagreeing with him on ending “don’t ask don’t tell” and each of the other measures he has supported and in many cases has enacted, would draw the line here. Nor is it likely that anyone not already energized by Obama’s record on cultural issues will suddenly find this to be the thing that gets them off the couch.
And what of everyone else? The millions of Americans, most likely a large majority, who don’t really care very much? They’re still not going to care very much. My guess is that the conventional wisdom is correct: Anyone pushing hard on the marriage issue in either direction risks seeming out of touch with those who care a lot more about the economy or other issues. So if you think that Obama’s evolution will make that happen, then you have something . . . but it’s hard for me to see it. After all, the president doesn’t really have much of a role in the next steps on the issue, which will be taken by the courts and the states.
At the margins, Obama’s new position makes him slightly more prepared for the fall campaign; should marriage hit the headlines (say, from a major court decision), it’s probably easier for him to talk about it now than it was under his old position. And I'm not saying that social issues overall are not important politically. They certainly can be — but their importance, so to speak, has already happened; those who care about these things have sorted themselves by party long ago. So mostly, as far as November is concerned, this new wrinkle just doesn’t seem likely to have any effect at all.