President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage has drawn strong reactions, with some characterizing it as a historic moment of political courage, others deriding it as politically motivated, and still others seeing elements of both politics and principle combined.
With a sharp dividing line between the presidential candidates on the issue now defined, how will this divisive social question play out in the November elections? And beyond the immediate political fallout, what does this change mean for the larger society? On May 16, Brookings expert Jonathan Rauch took your questions and comments in a live web chat moderated by Vivyan Tran of POLITICO.
12:34 Vivyan Tran: Hi everyone, let’s get started!
12:35 Jonathan Rauch: Hi everybody. Nice to be here. I’m a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution…contributing editor of National Journal and Atlantic…but here because I write and think a lot about gay marriage, of which I’m an advocate. I wrote “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.”
12:35 [Comment From Anne:] Were you surprised by the President’s decision to support same-sex marriage? Did Biden force Obama’s hand with his misstep?
12:39 Jonathan Rauch: Very surprised. Just a day earlier, I had told friends on a listserv that Obama would stay away from SSM until after the election, because it wouldn’t help him, and probably would hurt him a bit in the swing states and with the swing voters that he needs to win.
Biden’s role? I think it gave a nudge. But Obama could easily have held out until the election, had he chosen to. I think he had changed his mind some time ago and figured there would never be a better time…and he didn’t want to lose the election and miss the opportunity to have made this historic change.
I’m guessing. But I think he had a “goddammit” moment. More on that here…https://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2012/05/09-gay-marriage-obama-rauch
12:39 [Comment From Roberto:] How do you see the gay rights issue playing out during the course of the election? Will it become a focal point of the campaign, or take a backseat to other key issues like the economy?
12:41 Jonathan Rauch: This year, it’s the economy, stupid. It’s in neither candidate’s interest to talk about social issues. I think some evangelicals will make some hay with the issue among their networks, but most of those voters were all going to turn out against Obama anyway. Same goes for the liberals he’ll energize: they were already voting for him, mostly in states he was going to win.
So I don’t think it makes a big difference this year. That’s why he felt safe doing it. As I said, he would never have a better time–at least, not while he’s a non-lame-duck president.
12:41 [Comment From Allan:] Assuming Obama wins in November, can you foresee this administration embracing domestic partner benefits as a first step in recognizing same-sex relationships? Obviously moving towards marriage equality would be better, but given there is likely not enough support to win over Republicans, it only makes sense to at least push for incremental change.
12:44 Jonathan Rauch: A federal civil unions program is a logical place to go in a second term. A solid majority of the public supports either CUs or gay marriage. Another place to go, though less likely to get past the Republicans: repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (if the courts don’t throw it out) and give federal recognition to states’ same-sex marriages. Either could happen. Neither is easy. It will be interesting to see if, in a second term, Obama continues pushing the issue–being the “fierce advocate” he promised to be in 2008, a description he has now lived up to–or considers his work mostly done.
Here’s an article where I suggest that gay rights is a major legacy item for Obama–maybe No. 1, if health reform gets rolled back…
12:44 [Comment From Gianne:] How does Mitt Romney respond to Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage?
12:46 Jonathan Rauch: He mostly ducks. Republicans will try to use the issue, but they’ll keep it local and at the level of pulpits and independent-group advertising. They’ll keep the national campaign away from it. Independent voters see social issues as a distraction. Interestingly, even religious-conservative groups, like Concerned Women for America, are urging the Republicans to focus on the economy this year. For both gay-marriage advocates and opponents, it’s 100 percent about winning the presidential race this year–not making a statement.
12:46 [Comment From Samantha:] Will Obama’s support of gay marriage cause him to lose support among any of the demographics who turned out for him in force in ‘08?
12:49 Jonathan Rauch: It’s a balance. It helps mobilize and energize younger, upscale voters…but it may marginally turn off independents and moderates, who want to focus on the economy, as well as some socially conservative blacks. Not sure how this plays. We may never really know.
12:49 [Comment From Eddie:] What did you think of this week’s Newsweek cover? Do you think it’s fair to call Obama the nation’s first “gay president?”
12:50 Jonathan Rauch: I loved it. I wish it had been the headline for this article of mine…
Yes, it’s fair in the sense that Obama has adopted gay equality as a personal cause, whereas all earlier presidents (and 99.9 percent of straights until just a few years ago) saw this as someone else’s problem. For gay Americans, he’s a historic figure.
12:51 [Comment From Joseph:] Do you think that the president’s statement will really have a broader impact, or was it all talk?
12:53 Jonathan Rauch: Obama’s statement doesn’t change a line of law or policy. I’ve heard people carp about it for that reason. But it’s culturally very, very important. He has put one of the two major political parties behind gay marriage, almost certainly forever. There will never again be a Democratic president who does not support full gay equality. He has brought support for gay marriage fully into the mainstream. He will nudge some people to rethink the issue. I expect he will indirectly influence the courts, which try to stay in the political mainstream–and he has just defined that mainstream as including gay marriage.
It’s a landmark.
12:54 [Comment From Abigail:] Will Obama’s stance help gay-rights advocates who are trying to get bills passed in states?
12:56 Jonathan Rauch: It has got to help some. I’m not sure how much. But one reason that initiatives banning SSM and civil unions keep passing–even in states where majority opinion favors recognizing same-sex unions–is that opponents are more intense on the issue than proponents. I think Obama is going to bring more straight support to the table.
12:56 [Comment From Ron:] I have never understood why same-sex marriage is such a big and divisive issue.
12:58 Jonathan Rauch: How could it not be? We’re debating the meaning of marriage. What is it for? Who gets to define it? This is law and society and religion and family and equality, all brought together in a single ball of energy. I’m actually glad the country is giving the issue an extensive debate. Not just because it has given gay people like me a chance to humanize ourselves and make our case. But because this really is an important issue.
12:58 [Comment From Mike:] Do you think that Obama’s subsequent statement that gay equality is a states’ rights issue contradicts the idea of gay equality as a civil right, i.e. a right that cannot be denied?
1:01 Jonathan Rauch: I agree with the president: until there’s much more of a national consensus, gay marriage should be left to the states. Rights don’t come from courts, ultimately: they come from public consensus. We need to build that. Prematurely deciding this at the federal level wouldn’t end the debate; it might merely escalate it. Conservatives would spend the next 40 years trying to undermine and differentiate same-sex marriage, much as they did with abortion.
More on that here…
1:02 Jonathan Rauch: I’m told we’re out of time. Thanks for the good questions and tuning in. However you feel about this issue, thanks for considering my views. I consider it a miracle that I’m living here and now, in a country that’s willing to open its heart to gay people.
Here’s my thank-you note…
1:02 Vivyan Tran: Thanks for the questions everyone, see you next week!