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Walk it back? It's time for Obama to walk gay marriage discussion forward

Posted: May 9, 2012 - 11:00pm

(Author’s note: This column was written and submitted prior to President Barack Obama announcing his support for marriage equality on Wednesday. I’m hopeful the discussion of why this is a good idea for Obama and his campaign, and the reasons why will still be timely, and appropriate for consideration.)

Advisers to and spinmeisters for President Barack Obama and his reelection campaign went into action earlier this week when Vice President Joe Biden seemed to take a firm stand in favor of gay marriage while being interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Whether Biden meant to make such a strong statement on the issue or this was another case of the veep engaging his mouth before his brain, it so far has been a missed opportunity for Obama to become the first president to make an unequivocal statement in favor of marriage equality.

“I am vice president of the United States of America,” Biden said. “The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction — beyond that.”

For some reason, instead of either embracing Biden’s comments or simply letting them stand, members of Obama’s campaign team began to “walk back” Biden’s words — which is a politician’s way of saying the team tried to convince voters they didn’t hear what they actually heard. According to the Associated Press, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters it makes sense for Obama to oppose a ban on gay marriage, while not overtly supporting a right to marriage equality. David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama’s reelection effort, said “gay or heterosexual couples are entitled to the very same rights and very same liberties (as heterosexual couples),” and said gay marriages should be supported where they are already legal, saying nothing about the discrimination in the 43 (soon to be 41) states where they are not.

The problem with this tack is to those opposed to equal marriage rights, it’s a distinction without a difference, while the semantic games serve to infuriate Obama’s supporters who also back marriage rights (49 percent of all Americans with 40 percent against, and 67 percent of Democrats, according to a March poll from the Wall Street Journal and NBC).

Of course, part of Obama’s reluctance has to come from the fact numbers from opinion polls and ballot boxes don’t have a 1:1 correlation. Older Americans are more likely to vote and less likely to support marriage equality. Seven of nine likely swing states in the 2012 presidential election have statutory or constitutional prohibitions on gay marriage, suggesting voters in those states would be less likely to back a candidate who supports it. And, whenever marriage equality — or, as seen recently in Anchorage — basic civil rights measures for gays are on a ballot, opponents tend to pepper their rhetoric against such fairness with plenty of fire and brimstone. Whether it’s right or wrong, “God wants you to vote this way” is a better campaign slogan than “Let’s be reasonable.”

Whatever value this campaign strategy might have had in past elections, its worth will be diminished in November. The tide is turning, and Obama seems well aware of it. His campaign even produced a guide to his bona fides on civil rights for gays, most notably his efforts to end the military’s discrimination policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” and his administration’s refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to refuse to recognize gay marriages performed in other jurisdictions. Any votes that would be lost to unequivocal support of marriage equality have likely already been lost because of Obama’s support of these high-profile measures. Though it’s also true any supporter of gay marriage who’s picking a president based on that issue would already be choosing Obama — given Mitt Romney’s support of marriage discrimination — this means the electoral value of fence-sitting is small, given the wash of votes for and votes against that would result. Being on the right side of history, though, could pay dividends for a generation of future voters — just as being on the right side of slavery helped Republicans and being on the right side of civil rights helped northern Democrats. Not to mention the value in doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing, and the boost marriage rights proponents would receive in upcoming political battles on the issue.

There’s been speculation that Biden’s comments weren’t a mere gaffe — particularly after Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came out in favor of marriage equality as well — but a gauge of public reaction to a high-profile administration member backing this issue. A politically prudent step, to be sure, but an unnecessary one. The baby steps on this issue have already been taken, along with a few leaps. The next jump — one that would commit America to a path of full marriage equality — is a sitting president making a stand in favor of gays receiving equal protection under the law in all areas, including marriage. The opportunity to seize that moment is there for Obama, and he should do so.

• Ward is deputy managing editor of the Juneau Empire. The views he expresses are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Empire’s editorial board.

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