Count me stunned that President Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage, after years of straddling and waffling. I was among those who said he would (a) stay on the fence through the election, uncomfortable though that might be, because (b) there's more political downside than upside in bringing the issue forward and taking a stand that still alienates many swing voters.
Why, then, did he do it? And what does it mean?
As to why, various press accounts speculate that pressure from gay donors played an important role (gay money features prominently in his campaign), and that Vice President Biden's sudden emergence as "comfortable" with gay marriage, combined with Education Secretary Arne Duncan's endorsement, made Obama's straddle untenable--potentially dividing the party and alienating its pro-gay base in a year when unity and enthusiasm are essential.
To me, those explanations sound unconvincing, or at least incomplete. Gay money knows that the choice between Obama's Democrats and Mitt Romney's Republicans is as stark on gay issues as the divide ever has been. With Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, much of the progress that gay rights made under Obama would be endangered. Many Republicans want to reinstate the ban on gays in the military, reverse Obama's repudiation of the Defense of Marriage Act, and amend the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage. Gay donors have plenty of motivation to support Obama, with or without a gay-marriage endorsement.
As for the straddle, yes, it was becoming uncomfortable. It did make him look evasive and arguably weak. But, had he chosen to, Obama could have gotten away with it through November. This year's election is just not about social issues.
Although bringing forward a divisive social issue in an "economy, stupid" year seems unlikely to help either candidate, I suspect that the Romney camp is pretty happy about Obama's announcement. I'd guess that endorsing gay marriage mostly reinforces Obama's appeal to people who were going to vote for him anyway, largely in states that are Democratic. Swing voters in battleground states are more likely to be turned off than on, either because they disagree (as many black voters do, for example) or because they think the election should be about something else. If counting electoral votes were all the president was doing, I'd advise him to stay away--against my own convictions as a gay-marriage proponent.
What happened? Harry Truman was fond of quoting Mark Twain: "When in doubt, do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest." Now and then, politicians have a "goddammit" moment. Obama's position had clearly shifted on the issue (who was he kidding with his talk of having "evolved" but being unwilling to make news?), and there was never going to be a better time to make the switch than now--at least not while he is certain to be a non-lame-duck president.
So Obama decided it's worth a roll of the dice to make history. Which is what he has done.
As of his announcement, favoring gay marriage is now fully, indisputably, and permanently a mainstream political position. All hint of weirdness or stigma is gone. It is also now the stated position of one of the two major political parties (only 16 years after President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, signed the anti-gay-marriage Defense of Marriage Act). Precisely because the issue is unlikely to decide the election this year, November's result will not revoke the issue's promotion in status even if Obama loses. Though gay couples have not achieved full legal equality, gay marriage, as an issue, has achieved full political equality. That is a landmark in the ongoing marriage debate.
The courts, as Obama, the former law professor, must be well aware, will take notice. Two big gay-rights cases--one challenging California's revocation of gay marriage, the other challenging the Defense of Marriage Act--are on their way toward the Supreme Court. With his switch from ambivalence to advocacy, Obama is sending a signal to the courts that the country is ready for gay marriage, giving them more cover to uphold it. Courts may not go by poll results, but they do like to stay within the mainstream. And Obama has just moved it.