Was President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage crassly political? God, I hope so.
Like a lot of people, I worry about the impact that Obama's comments will have on some independent voters, and about whether it will cause trouble when the Democrats hold their convention in North Carolina, which just voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage. But like a lot of people, I'm also hopeful that the gay-marriage endorsement will help Obama pick up some other independent voters. What's great about Obama's embrace of gay marriage isn't that it represents any significant change in the president's thinking. Let's get real. We all know that Obama (like most sensible people) has been in favor of gay marriage all along, and that when he previously said his thinking was "evolving" on the issue, the thinking he was really talking about was not about the acceptability of gay marriage itself, but rather about the political practicality of coming out in its favor.
I can't help thinking that the timing was influenced by the recent resignation of Richard Grenell, a gay man (and gay-marriage advocate) pressured to leave the Romney campaign by the social conservatives who hold more sway over that campaign than Romney himself. In demonstrating this was so, the Romney campaign handed Obama a wonderful opportunity. The Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance sequence that followed, in which first Joe Biden, then Arne Duncan, and finally Obama voiced their support, feels choreographed to me. The official story leaked to Politico and others is that Biden's comments "deeply annoyed Obama's team." In an interview, Obama said the vice president "probably got a little bit over his skis." But like National Journal's Major Garrett, I strongly suspect Obama's handlers decided to take advantage of Biden's reputation for being an undisciplined big-mouth by having him blurt out something it actually wanted him to say. (The fact that Biden made his comment on "Meet The Press" attracts particular suspicion. Sunday morning TV interviews are always highly strategic from the White House's point of view; they are rarely a setting for gaffes.) If Biden's remarks, and then Duncan's, failed to cause a firestorm, Obama would know the coast was clear. That's not how the White House is spinning it; they're saying this was all the product of improvisation. And perhaps it was. But it's notable that President Obama had apparently planned quietly for some time to state his support for gay marriage before the election.
There are two reasons to hope that Obama and his handlers are lying when they say this policy shift was spontaneous. The first is that it would demonstrate skillful political calculation in a team that will sorely need it in the coming months. But the main reason is that it suggests the public is sufficiently supportive of gay marriage that Obama can afford to say he favors it--something that gay-marriage advocates have been claiming for awhile. It is this change of heart by the polity, and not Obama's implicit acknowledgement of it, that is true cause for celebration.