Yes, it was a few years too late. Yes, his hand was forced by Joe Biden and Arne Duncan. Yes, his statement is just a statement—it does not change any law. And yes, we shouldn’t minimize the role of an extraordinary civil rights movement—comprising millions of average Americans, gay and straight—in dragging our country over the past two decades toward the current moment, one where a president could feel politically able to take such a stand. But none of this should minimize the significance of what took place yesterday in Washington. President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage was both substantively important and politically brave. And he deserves enormous credit for it.
First, the substantive importance: Presidents are accountable not only for the laws they pass but also for the tone they set for the country. Their rhetoric, at its best, can help to shape people’s views. That is what Obama was doing in his interview with ABC News, whether he intended to or not: using his powerful platform as president in a way that is bound to influence public opinion on gay rights. He did not simply state his support for gay marriage; he explained in detail why he was changing his position—and in doing so, made a persuasive, moving argument for gay marriage. He spoke about “members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.” He spoke about his daughters, who have friends with gay parents. In other words, he told a narrative about his own views that will be familiar to many Americans who find themselves torn between loyalty to the traditional meaning of the word “marriage” and loyalty to a gay friend or colleague or relative or neighbor (or, if nothing else, Mitch and Cam on "Modern Family"). What Obama effectively said to Americans yesterday was simple: My friends and colleagues mean more to me than tradition for its own sake. That’s a powerful argument, and a more than worthy use of the presidential bully pulpit.
As for the politics: Noam Scheiber and Ed Kilgore argue at TNR Online that the rise of gay marriage as a campaign issue may eventually hurt Mitt Romney more than it hurts Obama—and we certainly hope this analysis proves right. Still, it’s undeniable that the impact of Obama’s statement is a huge unknown; it’s all too easy to picture it going either way. In an election where Obama is probably a mild favorite, he really doesn’t have a political incentive to take dramatic risks. And this was a certainly a risk—maybe not an unduly reckless one, but a risk all the same. So give Obama credit for taking a principled stand that wasn’t necessarily in his political interest.
We’ve been tough on Obama over gay issues since he became president. We assailed his early refusal to suspend enforcement of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and his reticence to fully embrace gay marriage. And we’re not going to stop arguing for him to do more. To take one issue we feel strongly about: His recent decision not to issue an executive order preventing federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT Americans was genuinely appalling—and, in the wake of his moving comments yesterday about equality, completely inexplicable. Liberals must continue to press Obama on this issue—even as they thank him for doing the right thing on marriage.