Ruth Marcus
Columnist May 8, 2012

Same-sex marriage is turning into a test of character and leadership for President Obama. Does he favor it, or doesn’t he?

In the wake of Vice President Biden’s remarks supportive of marriage equality, the continued presidential equivocation makes Obama look weak and evasive.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

Weak because he — and his unfortunate spokesman — keep fudging as Democratic official after official, from governors to his own Cabinet secretaries, expresses clear support for marriage equality.

Evasive because he seems to be hiding the ball from voters. Aren’t they entitled to know what he thinks before they decide on a second term?

The longer Obama waits, the worse he looks.

The president’s first stall tactic, that he is “evolving” on the issue, doesn’t cut it anymore. Even Darwin would have lost patience by now.

His second approach, the not-gonna-make-news-for-you-today cop-out, has also worn thin.

If you wonder whether the president actually opposes same-sex marriage, doesn’t evolution imply change? And if you think perhaps he’s still conflicted — well, that’s hardly an advertisement to be leader of the free world.

At this point, Obama’s reticence is looking cowardly.

Granted, the president has taken huge — indeed, brave — steps in support of gay rights. He ended “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which the last Democratic president implemented. He instructed his Justice Department to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which the last Democratic president signed.

So much credit is due Obama. And in comparison to Mitt Romney on gay rights, there is no comparison. Romney supports a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage. Obama is tiptoeing his way toward support of marriage equality.

But the tiptoeing is becoming the problem — a bigger problem, in fact, than would be created by Obama’s expressing support for same-sex marriage now, even with the election looming.

The president’s political advisers have been reluctant to have him take the plunge on marriage for fear of offending key voters. The concern is not so much African Americans, who tend to oppose same-sex marriage, as white working-class voters in swing states such as North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio.

But whether that earlier political calculus was correct, in a post-Biden-comment world, the better strategy would be to get it over with, take the hit with some voters and reap the benefits of coming out in support of marriage equality — benefits not only with gay voters and donors but with younger voters whose enthusiasm for the president has flagged.

As Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, told me, “The kind of back and forth we’ve seen over the last few days illustrates why it’s important that the president be forthright in his support for the freedom to marry rather than risk seeming inauthentic, and disappointing those who want to be with him, while doing nothing to satisfy those he’s never going to get anyway.”

The best strategy would have been to do so earlier, when the move would not look as if Obama had been pushed into it. Still, the reason to take the hit now is that the issue isn’t going away, as the cruel and unusual punishment that spokesman Jay Carney suffered during Monday’s White House briefing demonstrated. The same questions that Carney had to dodge will come up repeatedly until November — and the president is going to find himself on the receiving end.

In addition to North Carolina, where voters approved Tuesday a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage, four other states — Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington — are expected to have marriage measures on the ballot this fall. Does the president really want to be in the dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin position of being opposed to state initiatives to prohibit same-sex marriage yet not in favor of same-sex marriage? Carney was there Monday and it didn’t look very comfortable.

Then there is the looming debate over whether a marriage equality plank should be in the Democratic platform. And presidential debates: What does Obama say when he is, inevitably, asked to state his views? Not going to make news for you tonight?

One way out of this fix would be for the president to let the news slip during a broader-ranging interview. Another will arise next week, when, as it turns out, the president and Wolfson will share a stage at Barnard College. Wolfson will be receiving the Barnard Medal of Distinction. The president, who is getting the same award, will deliver the commencement address.

Seems like an opportune moment, no?

ruthmarcus@washpost.com