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June 27, 2011

“Leading from Behind”—Not a Bad Obama Strategy, Actually, for Gay Marriage

Harold Pollack

(Cross-posted on the Reality-Based Community)

Governor Cuomo is getting well-deserved praise for his active leadership in passing gay marriage legislation in New York. President Obama’s supportive but basically passive stance on the same issue has received somewhat lower marks. I’m all in for marriage equality. I’ve criticized the president for his timidity regarding other issues. Still, I believe he’s getting a bit of a bum rap here.

Mine is a minority view. Frank Bruni notes the president’s “closeted pro-gay course.” Nancy Goldstein laments the president’s “Gay marriage wimp-out.”

Nate Silver strikes a similar theme:

….[T]he type of leadership that Mr. Cuomo exercised — setting a lofty goal, refusing to take no for an answer and using every tool at his disposal to achieve it — is reminiscent of the stories sometimes told about with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had perhaps the most impressive record of legislative accomplishment of any recent president.

It’s also a brand of leadership that many Democrats I speak with feel is lacking in President Obama.

The New Yorker‘s David Remnick is, in his way, even more harsh. He notes that Obama was “trying to win Virginia and North Carolina while winking to more liberal states. More than on any other issue, he was willing to sacrifice his true sense of an issue, even his moral sense, at the altar of the Electoral College.” Remnick goes on to say:

Everything I learned about Obama while writing a biography of him tells me that he is neither homophobic nor is he repelled by gay marriage, no matter what his personal brand of Christianity…. What is clear is that Obama believed in 2008 that on this issue he should not be a leader, that the price of getting too far ahead of the majority of the country would be politically ruinous and lead to the election of a conservative Republican who would be far worse, not only on gay issues but on much else besides.

…. It is long past time for Obama to plant himself in the camp of fairness, decency, and honor. In civil-rights terms, it is 1965 on this issue, but Obama is still acting like—well, like F.D.R. And that, in this case, is no credit to a worthy and ambitious Presidency.

I can’t blame Bruni, Goldstein, Silver and Remnick for calling the president out. The LBGT community and its allies are right to prod and to shame the president into doing more. They are also right to note the intellectual and moral shortcomings of the various compromises that fall short of full marriage equality.

But I’m not ready to blame Obama, either. Andrew Cuomo’s LBJ-style courting of upstate legislators doesn’t teach us much about what President Obama could do to or for Max Baucus or Charles Grassley in health reform.

The president’s “leadership from behind” strategy is easy to deride, but the Lord works in mysterious ways. On this issue, anyway, it’s working pretty well. Rapidly changing public opinion is bringing gay marriage closer to reality. The battle is being won by the LGBT community and its allies. It’s not being given as a gift by any charismatic politician, however useful Andrew Cuomo has been to close things out in New York.

Moreover, I fear the president is basically correct that moving too far ahead of the country would bring a heavy political price, not least to the LGBT community itself. The electoral college matters, and he faces a knife fight for reelection. He must focus on the economic crisis, in all of its complexity and difficulty. He should use the power of his office to reduce anti-gay discrimination, end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and more. But he’s wise to keep a little distance, too.

Full-throated presidential support for marriage equality would be the satisfying, morally consistent and right position. I’m not sure that would actually hasten social progress at this point. For the president to inject himself personally in state gay marriage fights would provide an all-too-convenient rallying point for socially conservative backlash. It would also lend this issue a national partisan polarization that, at this moment, would be unhelpful. After all, four New York Republicans voted for this bill. The Republican leadership allowed the bill to reach the floor. Had President Obama become the face of this issue, that would have been harder to do.

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Moreover, I fear the president is basically correct that moving too far ahead of the country would bring a heavy political price, not least to the LGBT community itself.

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