In 1996, when Barack Obama was running for the Illinois Senate, he was asked in a survey by Outlines, a gay community newspaper in Chicago, if he supported same-sex marriage. Unlike most candidates, who merely indicated yes or no, Obama took the unusual step of typing in his response, to which he affixed his signature. Back then not a single state permitted same-sex marriage, and sodomy was a crime. Nonetheless, Obama took a position on the progressive edge of the Democratic Party, and he did so with unmistakable clarity: "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."
Since then, as Obama traced his dazzling arc to the presidency, his stance on gay rights has become murkier, wordier, less courageous, more Clintonian. During his 2004 US Senate bid, he stated that he supports domestic partnerships and civil unions instead of same-sex marriage. When speaking to gay audiences, he explained his new position as "primarily just...a strategic issue." But on bigger stages he cited his Christian faith as grounds for his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, a view he reiterated during the 2008 presidential election even while he also asserted, inconsistently, that religion should not dictate a state's approach to gay rights.
As president, Obama has made similar equivocations on gay rights. As a senator and as a candidate, he won the vocal support of the vast majority of gays and lesbians by calling for the repeal of both the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the miserable failure that is "don't ask, don't tell," and by supporting full federal partnership rights (but not same-sex marriage) and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make it illegal to fire someone because of his or her sexual orientation. But he has so far spent no political capital to turn these promises into reality. Quite to the contrary, Obama's slide hit what one hopes will be a nadir on June 12 when his administration filed a brief defending the legality of DOMA by comparing same-sex marriage to incest and pedophilia.
It is impossible to accept that a president who owes so much to movements for civil rights and social justice, never mind the Obama of 1996, believes in such right-wing bigotry; the only plausible explanation can be one of political calculation. The memory of Bill Clinton's early failure to integrate the military, as well as the aftermath of the 2004 election, when same-sex marriage was blamed for John Kerry's loss, looms large in the minds of top Democratic strategists. Guided by veterans of the Clinton-era culture wars like chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the prevailing wisdom in the White House seems to be that a forward push on gay rights can only endanger what the Democratic Party hopes will be a lasting majority and would squander precious political capital better used on issues like healthcare and economic reform.
Such logic, however, is quickly becoming obsolete. Six states have legalized gay marriage. Democrats like Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine have renounced support for civil unions and embraced same-sex marriage, with Corzine having done so as a centerpiece of his re-election bid. Gen. John Shalikashvili, Clinton's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a cadre of military leaders have publicly called for an end to "don't ask, don't tell." Huge majorities of Americans, 89 percent in a 2008 Gallup poll, support workplace rights for gays and lesbians. Steve Schmidt, John McCain's campaign manager, and former Vice President Cheney have announced their support for same-sex marriage; and Utah's Republican governor, Jon Huntsman, came out in favor of civil unions, a switch that has not eroded his popularity in Mormon country one bit. At this rate, Obama is in danger of being outpaced on gay rights not just by the American people but by the nonsuicidal wing of the Republican Party.
There is still time for a course correction. In the wake of an uproar from gay activists and progressives, Obama signed a memo extending limited benefits to partners of gay federal employees (but not healthcare or inheritance rights); reiterated his intent to repeal DOMA; and voiced support for legislation that would, in the interim, give healthcare to same-sex partners of federal workers. But words are no longer enough. Now is the time for Obama to act with the full authority of his office and his character to pass a gay rights agenda that, in the end, will be seen as neither particularly radical nor particularly partisan but as a simple matter of fairness under the law.
A promising first step would be to fast-track passage of ENDA. A previous version passed the House by a vote of 235 to 184 in 2007, with thirty-five Republicans in favor, before dying under the threat of a Bush veto. Congressman Barney Frank introduced a stronger version that includes protections for transgender people on June 24, just before the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, which ignited the modern gay rights movement.
In those forty years, and especially in the past decade, the arc of the moral universe, as Obama is fond of saying on other matters, has bent toward justice. So much so that the question is no longer, Can the Obama administration afford to support gay rights with full-throated passion—but rather, Can it afford not to?