President Obama’s declaration of support for same-sex marriage Wed nes day was not that of an agenda-driven radical, as claimed by his opponents, but the act of a cautious politician in clined to tiptoe to what is clearly the right stance. The president is a often a follower, not a leader, on issues of gay rights, but in following a good cause Mr. Obama has for the first time put the considerable weight of an American president behind that cause.
Mr. Obama has done more for gay rights than any president in American history. He put an end to the abhorrent military policy of "don’t ask, don’t tell," without the dire consequences that were predicted. He instructed the Justice Department to end its defense of the indefensible and plainly unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act. He has been commitmentphobic, however, when it comes to clearly declaring his support for gay marriage. Statements of support by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appeared to be trial balloons advancing the president’s endorsement as part of an ABC interview.
There is a political calculation to be made after any presidential action, particularly during an election year. The president narrowly won North Carolina in 2008, and that state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage last week. While Mr. Obama’s support of gay marriage may hurt him in a close race there with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, it is safe to say that most voters who oppose his stance weren’t going to vote for him anyway. For his part, Mr. Romney, an opponent of gay marriage, observed that he would rely on the 3,000 years of history which established that marriage is between a man and a woman. One who disagreed with that principle was Mr. Romney’s polygamist great-grandather, who had five wives.
Mr. Obama’s position that the gay-marriage issue should be decided by the states appears to be a political calculation and a regrettable one. If President Lyndon Johnson had decided that the battle for civil rights for blacks should not be fought at the federal level it is possible if not likely that African-Americans in the deep South would still be riding in the back of the bus and drinking from separate water fountains. Mr. Obama’s father was black and his mother was white, and there was a time not that long ago that so-called "miscegenation" was deplored just as many still deplore gay marriage. This is a fight that the president should be leading at the federal level and not leaving to the states.
All that said, the U.S. would not have made the strides it has made on gay rights over the past four years if the presidential election had gone differently. In Massachu setts, where gay marriage has been the law for eight years and neither society nor the institution of marriage has crumbled as a result, we welcome other states like New York that have caught up and remain hopeful that the nation as a whole will as well. With young people overwhelmingly supportive of gay marriage, the day is coming when gay marriage will be as much of a non-issue as mixed marriage is today. And that will be a great day.