Even in 2008, Barack Obama sharply divided Democrats and Republicans. It wasn't just a matter of policy disputes; it was a question of whether he was acting in good faith. (Prominent conservatives remain convinced that he hates America.) On one point, though, both liberals and conservatives agreed. Both sides were pretty sure Obama was lying when he said he opposed gay marriage.
Now there's evidence they were right. In his new book, former Obama strategist David Axelrod says candidate Obama took that position in 2008 at the behest of his political advisers. “Opposition to gay marriage was particularly strong in the black church, and as he ran for higher office, he grudgingly accepted the counsel of more pragmatic folks like me, and modified his position to support civil unions rather than marriage, which he would term a ‘sacred union,’” Axelrod wrote, as Time reports.
“I’m just not very good at bullshitting,” Obama told Axelrod after announcing the stand.
There were good reasons to believe Obama was bullshitting, to use his term. In 1996, while running for Illinois state senate, he answered a question from a gay newspaper, saying, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” (In a classic political we're-stupid-not-dishonest maneuver, Obama communications director Dan Pfeiffer tried to claim Obama hadn't actually filled out the survey.) While running for reelection two years later, he said he was undecided. By 2006, he was citing his Christian beliefs as a reason for opposing gay marriage but adding that he was willing to consider the idea that his stance was "misguided."
That made political, if not moral, sense in the 2008 Democratic primary, where only fringe candidates Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel clearly supported gay marriage. Gallup polling showed that only 40 percent of Americans supported gay marriage. It's tempting to imagine what might have happened if Obama had announced his support earlier, but it still seems likely that he would have been penalized for it politically, perhaps dooming his chances.
So by 2008, Obama's supposed opposition was a fiction, but it was a politically effective one. The press could and did report that Obama had previously felt otherwise, but no one could prove he was lying. Liberals remained convinced that in his heart of hearts, he was lying and would eventually publicly back marriage equality. Conservatives remained convinced that in his heart of hearts, he was lying and was just waiting to announce his backing for marriage equality. (The one group that was unwilling to abide this situation, understandably, was gay activists, who insisted that rights couldn't be a matter of patience and pressured Obama to speak out at every turn.)
Meanwhile, Obama claimed he was "evolving," a rather pernicious torturing of language: Can one evolve back to a position that one held already? (Darwin spins in his grave.) So as president, he announced he opposed the Defense of Marriage Act; then said all Americans deserved to be treated equally; and finally, in May 2012, called Robin Roberts of ABC to the White House for an interview in which he announced that—as everyone had feared or hoped—he backed gay marriage.
That dissembling arguably laid the groundwork for the huge transformation in public opinion on gay marriage over the last seven years. Today, a small but solid majority of the country favors gay marriage. Most citizens live in jurisdictions that allow gay marriage. It's even legal in Alabama, despite the best efforts of some conservative jurists and officials. Public opinion—which can be said to evolve in the way Obama's personal opinion clearly did not—gradually moved toward gay rights. By cloaking his own views, the president didn't polarize the issue, as he has shown he can do quite effectively, until the die was cast. Once he did announce his stand, it seems to have helped bring new supporters with him, particularly black Americans. By fall of 2012, what might have been a fatal liability in the 2008 campaign was one of Obama's top talking points during the 2012 campaign—which successfully won him another four years. It's unthinkable that any future Democratic nominee would oppose gay marriage, and even Republicans are said to be "evolving" on it, realizing the utility of that slick term.
The Supreme Court will hear cases on gay marriage this term. (The Court expanded gay rights in 2013 with United States v. Windsor, but declined to make a more sweeping ruling.) Predicting what the justices will do is dangerous, but it's widely expected that they will rule that gay marriage is a constitutional right. Even Justice Clarence Thomas, a staunch opponent, seems to agree. On Monday, dissenting from the decision not to block marriages in Alabama, Thomas objected that the Court had effectively made its decision. "This acquiescence may well be seen as a signal of the Court’s intended resolution of that question," he wrote. "This is not the proper way to discharge our Article III responsibilities. And, it is indecorous for this Court to pretend that it is." Justice Antonin Scalia, meanwhile, raged in his dissent in Windsor that the Court was effectively paving the way for gay marriage.
Thomas and Scalia seem to have a point: Will the justices really offer a decision that invalidates hundreds or thousands of legally valid marriages? The other justices seem to have learned a lesson from Obama. By holding their cards close to their robes and delaying the imperative to follow their logic to its conclusion, they can let politics catch up. Sometimes, lying does pay.