Endorsing gay marriage unequivocally, President Obama has ceased “evolving” and delivered an important social issue into the masticating jaws of 2012’s cutthroat political campaigns. We should recognize two things about this.
First, it’s a political master-stroke. Energizing a big chunk of his base while likely “turning off” very few, Obama has distinguished himself markedly from his anti-gay-marriage Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. And he’s done this at exactly the right time, just when the main campaign is starting to gear up, as millions of Americans who took little interest in the primaries are starting to pay attention, and just as the pundits were settling into an easy assumption that all voters cared about this time around was the economy. Easing into his announcement after similar statements by Joe Biden and Arne Duncan, the President and his campaign team seem to have orchestrated this most carefully.
Second, to use a hackneyed but in this case accurate phrase, the President has put himself on the right side of history. Gay marriage is the defining civil rights issue of our time. It’s true that while a number of states have explicitly legalized same-sex marriage, 30 others have forbidden it in their constitutions. But while this might look like an imbalance, in the United States the bend has always historically gone towards affirming rather than restricting civil rights. When a minority and its supporters rise up to demand equal rights, and when the cause is fundamentally just, all the old-thinkers and reactionary pundits and politicians in the country can’t hold the line against it indefinitely.
This doesn’t mean the end of anti-gay prejudice, of course – not now, and maybe not ever. The legal and societal victories of the 20th-century Civil Rights movement did not end racial prejudice and discrimination, which continue in some walks of life even in the Obama Age. No one knows what lies ahead – federal court cases? slow decades of state-by-state acceptance? violence? But today’s announcement by the President has served notice on the forces of discrimination – for that’s what they are, even when cloaked in religious or moralistic affirmations, and even when entirely sincere and well-meaning: As the great philosopher MC Hammer once said, You can’t touch this. And ultimately, you can’t stop it.