Obama and Gay Marriage: A Lesson for All Progressives and the Obama Campaign

We were told by the Democratic strategists and the campaign pollsters, the Democratic establishment, that coming out for marriage equality would be harmful to the president. But the opposite has happened.
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The latest ABC News/Washington Post pollshows that in the wake of President Obama's support for marriage equality, opposition to it is at an all-time low, at 39 percent. For the first time, strong support exceeds strong opposition. Moreover, there is now greater support for marriage equality among African Americans -- a whopping 59 percent -- than in the general population, breaking long-held stereotypes.

Look at that: Leadership happens.

And there's a lesson here for all progressives -- and for the Obama campaign. We were told by the Democratic strategists and the campaign pollsters, the Democratic establishment, that coming out for marriage equality would be harmful to the president. The establishment pundits, gay and straight, were defending the White House, giving the president a pass, as were the establishment gay groups. The DNC's openly gay treasurer, Andy Tobias, continually defended the president's record and continually predicted disaster if he were to go further on LGBT rights.

But the opposite has happened. I've strongly pushed against the idea, now posited by some of those very same establishment gay pundits, that Obama came out for marriage equality because of some kind of special bond he has with the gay community, mostly because it obscures the hard, strategic work of grassroots and netroots activists who pressured the president in the face of resistance from many in the LGBT leadership who were giving the president a pass.

For several years the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and other groups went easy on the president, ready to accept the failure of "don't ask, don't tell" repeal at various points, and allowing the president to continue to oppose marriage equality. The Human Rights Campaign endorsed the president over a year ago and spent nearly a year vigorously excusing his position against marriage equality.

The effort to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" in 2010 had stagnated, and if not for people like Lt. Dan Choi and others from the group Get Equal chaining themselves to the White House gate, as well as the Log Cabin Republicans continuing a lawsuit against the government, the issue would have died in the media. The pressure simply wasn't coming from the mainstream gay groups, which were afraid of losing access, and even Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was critical of the White House for not providing leadership. But the grassroots pressure continued right up until the end. Now, the White House rightly touts "don't ask, don't tell" repeal as a major accomplishment and runs on it.

On the issue of marriage equality, blogger Joe Sudbay of Americablog asked the question of the president over a year ago and elicited Obama's statement that he was "evolving." Sudbay and others didn't leave it there. The president's speeches were interrupted and his administration was criticized over and over again, pressured by those activists and by some journalists and commentators.

The argument made by activists and commentators wasn't that this would be the "right thing" to do, even if it had costs, but that coming out for marriage equality would show the kind of leadership that would help the president by energizing his base and showing decisiveness to independents and others. The argument was that the benefits far outweighed the costs; that the president could change minds, taking a somewhat unpopular position and making it into a popular one through resolute leadership; and that he needed to do this heading into his reelection campaign.

And the new polling shows that in fact that was correct. It's instructive for the Obama campaign, and the perseverance of gay activists should also be an example for all progressives when it comes to key issues, from civil liberties to the environment to women's rights, moving into this election campaign. We've seen some of that sort of organizing from environmental activists on Keystone XL, supporters of the DREAM Act, and Occupy Wall Street. But I think it's fair to say that gay activists have been the most sustained -- and the most successful.

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