'Evolving'

By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Obama biographer David Remnick assesses the evidence:

During his 2004 Senate race, as the Times has reported, Obama talked for many hours with an aide, Kevin Thompson, about everything from the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion to gay adoption to gay marriage, and it was Thompson's impression that Obama had not really changed since filling out that 1996 questionnaire. "To this day," he said, "I don't think Barack Obama has any issue with two people of the same gender getting married." 

I agree with Thompson. Everything I learned about Obama while writing a biography of him tells me that he is neither homophobic nor is he repelled by gay marriage, no matter what his personal brand of Christianity. He was not being straight, as it were, with Rick Warren. 

What is clear is that Obama believed in 2008 that on this issue he should not be a leader, that the price of getting too far ahead of the majority of the country would be politically ruinous and lead to the election of a conservative Republican who would be far worse, not only on gay issues but on much else besides. 

At a fundraising dinner in 2008, in Montclair, New Jersey, Obama told one of his favorite stories about F.D.R. (He told the story apropos of the Israeli-Arab dispute, but it also pertains to gay marriage.) Obama recounted how when F.D.R. was confronted by the civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph about the racial injustices in the country and the need for the President to use his powers and his bully pulpit, F.D.R. said he agreed but he would only take action when he was forced to do so by a popular movement. "Make me do it," he told Randolph.

By threatening to organize a mass march on Washington in 1941, Randolph "made" F.D.R. take the limited step of banning discrimination in defense industries. But the irony of the story that Obama likes to tell is that it took another generation before Martin Luther King, Jr. "made" L.B.J. take the lead in passing far more meaningful bills on fundamental civil rights and voting rights. 

I think, in terms of our own ongoing conversations around struggle and democracy, that last part is really key. Yesterday, while discussing the death penalty and the sense of despair we all feel given that the country seems fine with the status quo, there was some despair over the fact Rick Perry cavalier attitude won't hurt him in the least.

But this is the long war. And politicians respond to only one thing--power. This is not the flaw of democracy, it's the entire point. It's the job of activists to generate, and apply, enough pressure on the system to affect change. 

It's not like this hasn't been done before. You're reading this right now because it's been done before.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/evolving/240972/