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.