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A debt of gratitude is owed to President Obama on gay marriage

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

A debt of gratitude is owed to President Obama on gay marriage

No matter which way the Supreme Court rules on gay marriage, gay rights organizations owe President Obama a debt of gratitude for pushing the nation’s envelope forward in support of gay marriage.

It’s true that gay rights groups have waged a tireless struggle against the wall of bigotry, ignorance, religious distortion and the towering legal barriers to gay marriage. It’s equally true that one of those who stood fast behind one of those barriers was Obama. His self-admitted soul-searching journey from passive opponent of gay marriage to full-throated support of the right is well-known.

What’s less well-known is that Obama’s epiphany on gay marriage was not just one man’s conversion to a controversial cause. The politics of that conversion was profound; it put the White House stamp on it.

It’s part myth that presidents simply are solely the bellwether of public opinion, and don’t make a move without first sticking their finger in the wind to see which way public opinion is blowing. Studies have shown that it cuts both ways. Presidents do have the awesome power to influence, sway and even change public opinion on controversial issues.

There was Franklin Roosevelt’s erosion of America’s isolationist resistance to the fight against fascism leading up to World War II, Truman’s stand on integrating the armed forces, and Eisenhower’s stance enforcing school integration in Little Rock.

There was Kennedy’s public face-off with the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis, Johnson’s push on civil rights and poverty, and Nixon’s opening to China. Then there was Carter’s Middle East peace initiative, Reagan’s public assault on government programs, Clinton’s revamp of welfare and Bush’s sell of the Iraq war. These were pivotal issues that moved the dial on public opinion.

Obama’s breakthrough stance nearly a year ago on gay marriage must be seen in the same light. Before the president’s announcement, support for same sex marriage had barely nudged toward the halfway mark. This was a significant jump from six years earlier, when support for gay marriage stood at under 40 percent.

Even more dramatic was the turnaround in black attitudes toward gay marriage. Blacks had been one of the staunchest opponents of gay marriage, and were the trump card that Christian evangelicals and GOP ultraconservatives played to spearhead ballot initiatives in several states banning same-sex marriage.

On the eve of the president’s announcement of his support for gay marriage, black support for it had climbed to nearly 60 percent. Following the president’s announcement, all the major civil rights organizations, and even a number of religious leaders, publicly declared their support of gay rights. Many Hispanic organizations also publicly endorsed same-sex marriage, too.

One key in just how a president’s view on a controversial issue ultimately matters is whether a president will back up his words of support (or opposition) with aggressive action. This means translating his support into public policy initiatives. Obama set the stage for that over the years even when he opposed or was ambivalent about gay marriage.

He backed gay rights in speeches and legislation 18 times before he grabbed the White House. He showed the same support and sensitivity in his appointments. He was only the second president to speak at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign. The fact is that the group thought enough of his gay rights advocacy to invite him. Obama lent his name to opponents of Proposition 8 — which sought to eliminate the rights of same-sex couples in California to marry — to use in mailers that they circulated, and did the same in the case of other initiatives in other states.

Obama sent a subtle signal of his gay rights support on the Defense of Marriage Act. He could have kept his hands off the issue by letting the legal challenge to it run its course. Other presidents had done that when they thought a law was unconstitutional or unjust. This argument, though, ignored what Obama had said about traditional marriage too, not to mention that he made it plain that he wanted the law repealed through legislation that he would push for.

Presidents can and often do make a big difference in pushing the nation forward on an issue. Obama’s stance on gay marriage was proof of that. Gays, and indeed the nation, should be thankful for that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.