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Reflecting on Obama’s Gay Marriage Decision

May 20, 2012

In a recent article, Courting Bubba, I noted that former president Bill Clinton had been accused of racism for questioning the credibility of Obama’s 2008 campaign. This was particularly perplexing and wounding to Clinton whom in office had famously been referred to as America’s First Black President by Toni Morrison. Obviously, Bill Clinton was not an African American, but the point was that he was one of only a few Caucasian politicians who appeared to feel comfortable and capable of empathizing with a non-white audience.

This week Newsweek has referred to the supposedly post-racial Barack Obama as ‘American’s First Gay President.’ They even revealed alternate cover mocks ups in case anyone wondered how they arrived at the cover story. Clearly, Newsweek’s decision has much to do with its ongoing ratings war with Time Magazine and its somewhat more risqué attitude under new editor Tina Brown. The decision to do so has ensured that almost as much time has been spent dissecting Newsweek’s coverage of the story, than it has analysing Obama’s decision to support the idea of gay marriage in the first place.

Indeed the coverage of the announcement is a story all in itself and will doubtless be retold over and over as the media clearly loves nothing more than a tale that it essentially about themselves. Yet the media, its coverage of the story and its apparent usage by the White House remains central to the developing tale of President Obama’s statement endorsing the idea of gay marriage.

Recall that despite attempts to present a serene image of a tolerant, thoughtful president whose position had been evolving on this issue, this was not a planned or carefully thought-out decision. Instead, the President of the United States was playing catch up and being forced to address the situation following yet another gaffe by the vice president, the man even bid Laden did not want to target!

Once the vice president had given his support for gay marriage it was inevitable that the president would be required to go on the record in one form or another. The decision to come out and make an announcement appears to have been made quite literally as the president was heading out of the White House door en route to Albany. There then followed a mad scramble to identify an appropriate vehicle by which to make the announcement, with the White House finally settling on using Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America. The use of Roberts, an African American, was revealing and this must have been factored in when deciding who got the scoop.

With the announcement made, the media have jumped all over it, with ABC congratulating themselves for securing their place in broadcast history. In the week that Time Magazine made headlines for its cover on breastfeeding, Newsweek chose to place its coverage of the Obama story front and centre in what will doubtless be a cover for the ages. Interestingly, just as the White House made a conscious decision in the selection of Robin Roberts, so too did Newsweek in their selection of Andrew Sullivan to write the cover story.

With the media congratulating itself over its coverage of the story, what are the political ramifications? As noted above, this was not a well thought out announcement and whatever one’s views on the morality of the issue, the political timing is dreadful. It has clearly caught the country and Obama’s own party completely flat-footed.

Is there an up side? Well, by all accounts there was a great deal of money riding on this that Obama will presumably now be able to secure from the gay community. It has also (and completely unconnectedly, of course) played well in Hollywood. This combination was expected to generate anything up to $12 million in campaign funds in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.

It will be argued that this places Obama on ‘the right side of history,’ that gay marriage is an inevitability and that Obama is right to endorse it now, lest he get left behind on the issue and be forced to play an even bigger game of catch up later. Maybe. It will help with some elements of the Democratic base that view this as a matter of civil rights.

So…. the gay community, Hollywood and the Democratic base are pacified by this.

But where else were they going to go? Would they have ever voted for Mitt Romney? Which forces us to consider the downside to the announcement….

At present, polling indicates that this is a closer race than many (myself included) would have predicted. With the power of the incumbency, a divisive Republican primary season and millions of dollars in his campaign war chest, the expectation was that Obama would be far ahead in the polls.

That he is not is encouraging to Mitt Romney and problematic for the president, who must be wondering where he is going to garner the magical 270 Electoral College votes necessary to secure a second term in the White House. At a time of economic hardship, international turmoil and in the midst of an election cycle, the president’s announcement carries great political risk, with questions raised as to the necessity to address this issue now. Is it a national priority? Is it an issue that the president intends to campaign on? Is it an issue the president is prepared to lose an election over?

Vitally the White House is not proposing to legislate on the issue. The president maintains that this is a state issue and that the federal government will not become involved. He has, however, firmly pined his colours to the mast and will be praised and criticised in equal measure for doing so. His choice will doubtless please his base and appal his opponents. What will be of interest is which side it motivates most to get out and vote in November.

Mitt Romney has come out in opposition to the president’s announcement, which should surprise no one in particular. This alone should appease those who lament a lack of distinction between opposing candidates in an election.

However, elections may be based on issues, but they are won with numbers and right now the president’s numbers on this issue do not look good. Many states can be discounted in a presidential election. There will be those states that will inherently vote Democrat (New York, Massachusetts, etc) and those that inherently vote Republican (Indianapolis, North Dakota etc). However, it is in the all important swing states that the race will be decided; states that cannot be relied upon and where the difference between defeat and victory could be as little as a few hundred thousand votes. It is these votes that will decide the coming election and they do not appear to be in favour of the president’s stance on gay marriage. Seven of these states have provisions of one kind or another that restrict or ban gay marriage. Vitally, the majority of these were not enforced by mean spirited legislators, but were instead passed through ballot measures, which is a major problem for the president.

Same sex marriage is outlawed in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado and there are restrictions in Wisconsin and Nevada. Elsewhere in the Union, over 30 states have legislated against gay marriage. Planning a route to victory for Obama that does not include Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Florida becomes a mathematical challenge. In addition, Democrats are preparing to descend on Charlotte, North Carolina this summer for their nominating convention, the state that acted last week to ban gay marriage. This decision has led to calls to move the convention and to an online petition to boycott the state. As noted above, however, if Democrats are forced to gather only in states that have not passed similar legislation then they must avoid Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.

Polls released in the aftermath of the president’s announcement indicate that Americans recognise that politics as usual is at play here. This brings the issue around full circle in regard to the lack of planning that was put into this announcement. For an administration to gain public support on a contentious, history making issue, it is necessary to build up a head of steam and to prepare the public for a shift in policy so that when it comes the voters have been prepared to receive it. This did not happen in this case.

The subject does not dominate national debate but has the potential to damage Obama in marginal constituencies. 67% of respondents in a New York Times/CBS poll believed that the announcement was made “mostly for political reasons.” “38 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, while 24 percent favor civil unions short of formal marriage. Thirty-three percent oppose any form of legal recognition. When civil unions are eliminated as an option, opposition to same-sex marriage rises to 51 percent, compared with 42 percent support.”

At a time when the economy appears to be improving Obama has not aided his electoral chances with this announcement. The economy remains the number one issue for voters but the NYT/CBS poll indicates the decision could cause 26% of voters to be less inclined to vote for Obama.

It’s still the economy stupid, but Obama may have been advised to wait until he was safely re-elected before addressing this issue, which threatens to undermine his carefully constructed re-election plans.

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