Of Course Obama's Gay Marriage Stance Is Political—So What?

Give the president some credit for his candor about the role of calculation and conscience in his thinking.

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President Obama's "evolution" on gay marriage is proving to be a classic political Rorschach test. Over at Fox News, it briefly meant "Obama Flip Flops, Declares War on Marriage." Among social liberals, it has been cause for celebration -- though tempered by disappointment over the naked political calculation of it all.

But since when is political calculation so appalling? Of course politics intrudes on, well, politics. Let's give Obama some credit for his candor on how and why he changed his mind -- and for acknowledging that politics played a part in his evolution.

Presidents don't like to dwell on the point, but everyone understands they often say things in public that they don't believe in private. Anyone believe that President Obama is, in his heart, as pro-gun as his campaign rhetoric indicates? Or that Mitt Romney has the kind of pro-life and anti-Obamacare fire in the belly that his public rhetoric purports?

This two-facedness is the nature of governing in a democracy. Despots can for the most part get away with saying anything they think. (Though they also have little obligation to do so, what with no elections and all.) But from president on down to dogcatcher, American politicians must carefully weigh voters' reaction to every detail of their governing.

This is not to say that the tension between private conviction and political calculation is trivial. Quite the opposite. The choice between heart and head is often the most consequential a candidate faces.

Going with his heart back in 2002 on the topic of invading Iraq is probably what secured Obama the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton in 2008. And what has disappointed so many supporters since Obama took office is that Candidate Conscience turned into President Calculation. He has proved an incrementalist when it comes to tactics, however revolutionary his personal philosophies may or may not be.

What is interesting, however -- and also admirable -- is how candid the president's most recent statement is about how calculation and conscience drove this particular decision. The usual political convention is for politicians to gloss over the distinction between their private views and their public positions. Here, we have a president who has -- at least up to a point -- acknowledged the difference.

Let us assume, as David Plotz argues, that Obama has always been, in his heart, sympathetic to the cause of gay marriage. And if he'd lived a different life, as a tenured law professor at the University of Chicago, he'd probably be a strong and outspoken advocate on the great civil rights issue of our day.

But Obama chose a life as a political actor in a democracy. And -- with the exception of the survey he filled out in 1996 -- he has restricted his public position to being as empathetic as possible on the general issue of anti-gay discrimination, while supporting civil unions but not marriage.

As he explained it to ABC News yesterday:

I've stood on the side of broader equality for -- the L.G.B.T. community. And I had hesitated on gay marriage -- in part, because I thought civil unions would be sufficient. ... I was sensitive to the fact that -- for a lot of people, you know, the -- the word marriage was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs, and so forth.

The part about not offending "a lot of people" (also known as voters) comes pretty close to admitting that this was less about personal opinion and more about political compromise. And I don't know about you, but when I want to persuade someone of a deeply held personal view, I don't lead by describing it as "sufficient."

But now, Obama went on, he's changed his mind (emphasis added):

But I have to tell you that over the course of-- several years ... 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.

Here again, he does not suggest that his personal views have changed in an on-the-road-to-Damascus way. What he says is that he is now compelled to "go ahead and affirm" in public that he thinks gay marriage should be legal. He then starts to add caveats, explaining that his view shouldn't change national policy or impact a state's right to decide the issue for itself.

My reading is that Obama the political actor -- as distinguished from Obama the private thinker -- searched for a compromise position and then came to believe that compromise was ultimately a version of separate but equal. Or perhaps he -- and the wizards at campaign headquarters -- just decided it was bad politics. Whatever the reason, he is now going to state in public what has long been his private preference.

Some may find this all a bit calculating. And of course we'll never know whether the change occurred because conscience won over calculation -- or simply because the calculation has shifted based on new polling and donor data.

But if the baseline expectation in politics is to ignore entirely the distinction between personal views and public positions, Obama deserves some credit for doing his part to level with the American people about the difference.

Presented by

Bruce Gottlieb is general counsel for The Atlantic. He was formerly chief counsel with the Federal Communications Commission and a staff writer at Slate, where he originated the Explainer column.

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