The other day I noted here that the White House’s position on gay marriage can best be described with a phrase Obama himself is fond of: He may not be willing to voice open support for full marriage equality, but he’s doing his part to bend the arc of history in the right direction.
I meant that in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, but today at his press conference, Obama gave his most extended answer to date on the question, and that was essentially his point:
This administration, under my direction, has consistently said we cannot discrimate as a country against people on the basis of sexual orientation. And we have done more in the two and a half years that I’ve been in here than the previous 43 presidents to uphold that principle...
What I’ve seen happen over the last several years, and what happened in New York last week, I think was a god thing. Because what you saw was the people of New York having a debate, talking through these issues. It was contentious. It was emotional. But ultimately they made a decision to recognize civil marriages. And I think that’s exactly how things should work. I think it is important to work through these issues. Each community is going to be different. Each state is going to be different...The combination of what states are doing, what the courts are doing, the actions that we’re taking administratively all are how the process should work.
What you’re seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender people are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they have to be treated like every other American. And I think that principle will win out. The President can’t dictate precisely how this process moves. But we’re moving in a direction of greater equality, and I think that’s a good thing.
This answer comports almost exactly with Andrew Sullivan’s view that Obama’s unwillingness to publicly voice support for marriage equality is rooted in his view of the presidency — that while he lacks the political authority to mandate this change, he can preside over it.
In his extended monologue today, Obama basically revealed that he supports gay marriage, that it will ultimately carry the day, and that this is the outcome he wants. In the context of the gay marriage discussion, he said the principle that gays “have to be treated like every other American” will “win out,” and that this is a “good thing.” But he sees no need to make news by taking this to its logical conclusion. The role he sees for his administration resides not in dictating this change but in helping create the political conditions necessary for facilitating a transition that’s already underway and is ultimately inevitable.
It’s frustrating that Obama won’t come out and say what he really believes — particularly in light of his 1996 support for gay marriage. And it very well may be that a presidential declaration of support for it could do even more to facilitate the change in attitudes that’s currently underway. But in the near term, at least, Obama just isn’t going to do it. Obama is claiming some of the credit for helping nudge history towards its inevitable conclusion, but ultimately he’s arguing that an evolution in social attitudes of this magnitude will only happen one community and one state at a time. Whether it’s rooted in political calculation or in a genuine view of how his presidency should function, Obama’s ultimate point is that his public position on marriage is at bottom inconsequential. The larger and more important truth he wants us to accept is that marriage equality is on its way to becoming a reality for all gay Americans, and he’s doing everything he can to make this happen short of saying openly that it should be so.