On Oct. 27, 2010 President Obama was asked about his position on same-sex marriage. Reiterating his support for civil unions, he said that he "did not intend to make big news," admitting that he was "unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage." But the president did make news. He said he was evolving on the issue: "I also think you're right that attitudes evolve, including mine."
I know because I asked him the question.
Obama had opposed same-sex marriage in 2008, so I wanted to know his latest position on the issue. I pointed out that a lot had changed in the two years since he was elected. Five more states and D.C. had legalized same-sex marriage. California's Proposition 8 had been found unconstitutional. Moreover, prominent Republicans were speaking out for marriage equality. Even more has changed since then.
It's now been 500 days since that meeting. However, the president is apparently still evolving.
During our back-and-forth, Mr. Obama added, "The one thing I will say today is I think it's pretty clear where the trend lines are going."
It is pretty clear, and it gets clearer every day. The other thing that's pretty clear: President Obama is behind the trend. Way behind.
It's only getting better for those of us who support marriage equality.
Polls continue to show growing support across all demographics. In April 2011 the New York Times polling guru, Nate Silver, wrote a seminal post titled "Gay Marriage Opponents Now in Minority," which explained the new reality. In May 2011 The Washington Post released a poll of Virginia voters that showed that supporters of marriage equality outnumbered opponents, 47 percent to 43 percent. Digging deeper into the numbers of that battleground state, one sees that among voters between the ages of 18 and 29, an overwhelming 73 percent support same-sex marriage. Those young voters are highly coveted by Obama's reelection campaign manager, Jim Messina, and are key to the president's reelection.
On marriage, the country is changing, but we're still waiting for the president to catch up. After 500 days, the "evolving" talking point is just not plausible.
Clearly, this is a political calculation by Obama's political team, but they're still operating under the conventional wisdom of 2004. We ran into that same problem during the beginning of the administration. It took a while for them to come around, but the repeal of DADT is now one of Obama's greatest achievements.
Unfortunately, paid advocates are enabling this position. Instead of challenging the president, they provide cover. Last week The Washington Post reported, "If President Obama wins a second term, he will finally endorse same-sex marriage. Gay rights groups are almost certain."
"Almost certain," but not based on anything concrete. The article quotes Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Equality Federation, who indicated a willingness to wait until the second term. Similarly, the AP reported last October that the Human Rights Campaign's Fred Sainz "expects Obama to eventually declare his support for gay marriage." Those are paid advocates. However, they're out of step with the community, and they are doing a disservice to the president.
On some level the Obama campaign seems to understand the power of the marriage issue, even as it tries to gloss over the president's actual position. Last summer the campaign ran Facebook ads aimed at the gay community that stated, "President Obama supports equal rights for all married couples: gay, lesbian and straight." Not exactly. He still doesn't support equal rights for same-sex married couples.
Over the course of the campaign, the president will be asked again and again about his stance on marriage equality. With court cases moving through the system and marriage referenda on the ballots in five states, marriage equality is an issue in 2012. There's no way to avoid it, especially when the president finds himself in North Carolina, Maryland, Maine, Washington, and Minnesota. There's also a serious effort underway by Freedom to Marry to have marriage equality included in the Democratic platform, which many of the president's campaign co-chairs support.
And yes, I get that the GOP candidates are in lockstep with the anti-gay organizations and that rhetorical gay-bashing will be a regular element of their nominee's campaign. But that doesn't mean Obama shouldn't evolve.
Realistically, the people who would withhold a vote for Obama because of his support for gay issues are never going to vote for him. They already think he supports gay marriage. Moreover, as Nate noted, they're in the minority. In fact, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that while 54 percent of Americans wouldn't base their voting decisions on the marriage issue, more Americans (25 percent) would vote for a candidate who supported same-sex marriage than wouldn't (20 percent). The intensity is on our side now. That's another challenge to the already archaic conventional wisdom on marriage.
But there's something else happening. Increasingly, Republicans are saying they have the same position on marriage as the president. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said just that last week on MSNBC. It's becoming a GOP talking point to show they are not bigots.
So let's fast forward to this fall, assuming that the president has not evolved by then. It's highly likely that a marriage equality question will be asked of the candidates in the 2012 presidential debates, just as it was in 2004 and 2008. But it's much different now.
When Obama is asked at a nationally televised presidential debate, what will he say? Will he finally evolve, or will he agree once again with Republicans that marriage is limited to heterosexual couples?
If Obama stands by his view that we're still not equal, it's going to sting. He could get away with that in 2008. Not this time. And the "evolving" line won't cut it after two years. We're either equal or we're not. It's not a political calculation for many Americans. It's our lives.
I'm not sure the campaign has thought through the ramifications of not supporting marriage equality, and it's pretty clear that paid advocates aren't helping. If Obama doesn't support marriage equality, he'll probably get our votes but not our enthusiasm. That surely won't motivate people to make that extra contribution or get up early to do another lit drop.
This is the last election cycle where the Democratic nominee can consider not supporting marriage equality. That position will be untenable in 2016. It should be untenable now. Obama can either be the first nominee to endorse same-sex marriage -- or he'll be the last Democratic nominee who didn't.
So, I would like to convey a message to the president: It's been 500 days since we spoke. It's even clearer where the trend lines are going. We're still not equal. Evolve already.