Bring It On: Obama Rallies the Base With Gay Marriage Endorsement

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By supporting same-sex unions, Obama is giving his backers something to go to the streets to fight for.

President Obama just made history as the first incumbent president of the United States to endorse same sex marriage, during an interview with ABC News' Robin Roberts.

Admitting that his views had gone through an "evolution," Obama told Roberts:

I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask Don't Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.

The president's comments come just a day after North Carolina overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman, shutting down same-sex marriage advocates there. 

Obama's comments also followed Vice President Biden's surprise affirmation of gay marriage on the widely watched Sunday politics show, Meet the Press with David Gregory.  Biden told the anchor that he was "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage -- which then sent White House mandarins scurrying out to the media and interest groups to walk back Biden's comments, with administration spin-masters suggesting to reporters that the vice president had not actually endorsed gay marriage and had not broken new ground.

President Obama has now shattered any doubt about the administration's commitment to achieving fully equal civil rights for the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) community.  No shades of gray.  No politically sculpted safe place for the president to endorse same sex civil unions over marriages. No separate but equal. None of that any more.

What the president finally did today is brave. Others around the country have beaten him to the position. At this past year's Human Rights Campaign dinner, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's full-throated, resounding embrace of and support for gay marriage made President Obama's comments supporting the rights of gays (but not marriage) seem thin and weak-kneed. But Bloomberg is not behind the Oval Office desk -- and does not have to win presidential contests in North Carolina.

The question many in Washington are now asking is "Why did Obama do this?" "What's the political driver here?" "Why now?"

Perhaps Joe Biden's comments on the Sunday show were a fumble that the president decided to pick up in a magnificent display of conscience kicking in. 

Or perhaps more likely, the president in one of his regular private lunch meetings with the vice president encouraged Biden to stir things up by expressing his support for gays and gay marriage. Biden loves the gay community -- and he goes out of his way to affirm gays and lesbians in policy meetings, parties he hosts, and public functions around the nation. Biden presided over the swearing in of gay U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner and lavished praise and affection on David's "husband" Duane McWaine. Walking into the room, Biden hugged numerous gay politicos and then walked right over to the legendary iconic gay rights advocate Frank Kameny and said to the room, "Now this is a real hero."

Many political handicappers won't be able to resist criticizing Obama for picking a fight in the culture war terrain that evangelical-strumming, Karl Rove-types have been trying to tease out for years. But President Obama is not prone to emotional leaps of faith and knee jerk shifts in policy. Their polls must show that the nation is ready to have this fight -- that most independents and Democrats think same-sex marriage should be a civil right.

With the enthusiasm of liberals and progressives for the president's reelection seeming somewhat wilted when compared to the Obama juggernaut of 2008, gay marriage now may be one of the big meta-issues of the time that isn't only about gays -- but is part of a package of progressive "wants," such action on climate change, environmental protection, defending a woman's right to make her own choices about birth and abortion, and more.

By supporting gay marriage, Obama is giving his crowd, his base, something to go to the streets to fight for. And to the cynics on the political right who think that Obama loses in a head on culture war, he is saying "Bring it On" -- not only because he thinks that supporting gay marriage is the right thing to do, but because it may now be very smart politics.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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