To hear many of his supporters tell it in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama’s opposition to marriage equality and the repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was simply a matter of political expediency rather than personal or political preference. After the machinations in 2004 that put same-sex marriage bans on the ballot in swing states and ginned up Republican turn-out, taking a principled stand in favor of full civil rights for LGBT people was considered too politically risky in the tight race.
In 2012, Obama’s about to have the chance to prove such supporters right. But whether he’ll do so or not is still an open question.
Obama’s position on same sex marriage wasn’t exactly nuanced in 2008: he opposed it. His running mate, then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) said in the VP debate with then-Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) that marriage equality was not in the cards during an Obama Administration: “No, neither Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to should be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what to call it.”
Though in 2011 Obama ordered his Justice Department to stop defending DOMA in court, the law still prevents federal recognition of same sex marriages — thus denying those couples federal benefits — and allows states to refuse to recognize same sex marriages performed elsewhere. Binational couples still can’t get green cards that allow the non-American spouse to work, a same sex marriage can be legal in one state and not recognized one state away, and despite Obama’s order, the House is paying a private lawyer to defend DOMA in court to try to deny married same sex couples Social Security survivor benefits and more.
In the mean time, public opinion on same sex marriage has all but reversed itself since 2004 and 2008: whereas Gallup showed that only 42 and 40 percent of Americans (respectively) supported marriage equality in those election years, their most recent poll shows 53 percent now support it. Other nationwide polls bear out these findings. What was viewed as too risky to support in 2008 might well be too risky not to support in 2012.
Other Democrats have noticed — mostly recently, four former chairs of the Democratic National Committee support including marriage equality in the Democratic party’s official 2012 platform, which Obama is nominally running on. They join, as Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel wrote, “almost half of all Democratic senators, several of President Barack Obama’s national campaign co-chairs, the House Minority Leader and the chairman of the Democratic convention, among others.”
But the closest Obama himself has come to supporting marriage equality is a statement from White House spokesperson Jay Carney that he “continues to ‘evolve’” on the issue, though Carney added, “You know his position, where it stands now, on the position of same-sex marriage.” In March, an anonymous source told the Washington Blade that the White House and the campaign were having “active conversation” about whether the President should support marriage equality before the November election and that it was even odds that he might.
The source, however, said it was far from a sure thing because of the same political considerations that supposedly held Obama back in 2008: “We’re talking about the Michigans, the Ohios, the Illinois of the world; the real battleground states in which voters are already conflicted and may factor this into their judgment,” the source told the Blade.
But there’s one other consideration: how many times are marriage equality supporters supposed to believe the winking declarations of Obama’s team that the President actually believes in marriage equality if he doesn’t actually do anything to support it? And how are those same people supposed to keep taking on in the chin from folks like new Mitt Romney spokesperson Richard Grenell, who noted (before going to work for Romney, who does not support marriage equality), that “John Bolton, Laura Bush, Cindy McCain and Dick Cheney all disagree with President Obama and support marriage equality.”
If Obama actually supports marriage equality, it’s long past time to actually say it. Otherwise, perhaps voters — on all sides — should take him at his word.