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Why Obama’s Apologetic Defense Of Gay Marriage Isn’t All It Was Cracked Up To Be

The results are in: The electorate on the whole regards Barack Obama’s proclamation of personal support for gay marriage as a political maneuver, rather than an expression of heartfelt belief. Unfortunately, if Obama’s heavily hyped interview last week was in fact a political calculation, it was a bad bet—from a purely strategic standpoint, that is, not a moral one—since it seems to have hurt him in the polls. The giddiness and jubilation that marked the press coverage—see the covers of Newsweek and The New Yorker, which The New Republic all but predicted—could hardly be further from the mundane reception afforded the announcement by the general public.

Obama, of course, did the right thing. It’s high time a president endorsed equal rights for gays and lesbians, and whatever hit he suffers at the polls should earn him points for courage. But neither is it surprising that his interview has been greeted with cynicism. For his was a reluctant, narrowly framed, almost apologetic endorsement of same-sex unions—a far cry from the exercise in moral leadership from the bully pulpit that pundits have made it out to be.

The bully pulpit is a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps our most stridently moralistic president. By and large, presidents before TR did not go around the country beseeching their fellow Americans to rally behind some cause or other, and certainly not with the messianic fervor that distinguished TR’s sermons. Some observers, like the perpetually sour H. L. Mencken, bridled at Roosevelt’s grandiosity. “What moved him,” Mencken said of Roosevelt, “was simply a craving for facile and meaningless banzais, for the gaudy eminence and power of the leader of a band of lynchers, for the mean admiration of mean men.”

But there was no denying that Roosevelt’s bullying got the job done. He relentlessly attacked both the “malefactors of great wealth” on the right and the “apostles of discontent” on the left; at the same time he implored his audiences to improve their character and called for a restoration of the manly virtues he held dear. And he did this in the service of progressive reforms that he, as president, championed: a measure of federal control over the railroads, regulation of the meat and drug industries, and in general the “Square Deal” that he considered every American’s birthright.

Since then, presidents have frequently been remembered for their use of the bully pulpit, sometimes even more than for their deeds. Woodrow Wilson’s dream of a war to end all wars died at Versailles, but his noble rhetoric of self-determination for all peoples inspired the generations that followed and helped seal his greatness. Franklin Roosevelt, like the cousin whom he so admired, made the nation understand its duty to the “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Harry Truman used the presidential platform to denounce Joe McCarthy and his ilk and to defend freedom of speech and association at a time when other politicians were running scared.

Perhaps no act of moral leadership from the White House has been invoked more in the last week than John F. Kennedy’s insistence on an end to Jim Crow laws in the South in 1963. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he said, in a televised address, following the showdown at Birmingham. “It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”

Although Kennedy’s declaration was slow in coming, it was stark and unambiguous—and accompanied by far-reaching legislation that would permanently transform American society and politics. Obama’s comments, in contrast, while of course admirable and important, veered away from any bold, universal moral claims. He framed his support for gay marriage as a personal preference, and one that he had only come to slowly, not to say reluctantly. Unlike JFK’s “old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution,” his circumlocutious statement is not likely to be long quoted:

I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married. 

The interview was studded with near-apologies and partial walkbacks, as if to insist that he was taking on no one. Here he said that college Republicans agreed with him; there he conceded that his position might “put us at odds” with other “practicing Christians.” He invoked politically safe reference points such as his daughters and military servicemembers. He even praised the “healthy process and a healthy debate” that has led to prohibiting same-sex marriage in thirty states. This was not the language of a man girding for battle with the forces of bigotry.

Moreover, Obama’s statement came, as everyone knows, after a phony, whipped-up media frenzy in response to some refreshing but hardly earth-shattering comments by Vice President Joe Biden expressing his own personal support for gay marriage. Obama’s response—not to Birmingham, but to a classic pseudo-event—was no Kennedyesque attempt to launch an issue; it was an attempt to put an issue to rest. As a White House aide told the New York Times, “It’s not like we’re trying to pass legislation.” Indeed, Obama’s insisted he doesn’t want “to nationalize this issue.” His position remains that individual states should decide the issue—as they currently do.

Needless to say, Obama’s statement, for all its hedging, is to be celebrated. It was comforting, heartening, and exciting to millions of Americans, who, either gay themselves or supportive of gay marriage, felt that rare wonderful feeling of knowing our president thinks like us on an issue dear to our hearts. But it will certainly not go down in the annals of history as a majestic use of the bully pulpit in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy.

David Greenberg, a contributing editor to The New Republic, teaches history at Rutgers University and is at work on a history of presidents and spin.