Opinion Brief

Obama's gay-marriage stance: Is he leading from behind?

President Obama makes history by coming out in support of same-sex marriage — something that other politicians, like Dick Cheney, did years ago

On Wednesday, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to endorse gay marriage, completing his much-derided "evolution" from being a supporter only of same-sex civil unions. As historic as the occasion was, Obama is hardly the first mainstream politician to come out in favor of marriage equality: Vice President Joe Biden recently beat Obama to the punch (forcing the president's hand), as did two of his Cabinet secretaries — even former Vice President Dick Cheney backed gay marriage in 2009, as gay Republicans like to point out. Popular opinion seems to have evolved faster, too, to the point where at least half of Americans now say they support same-sex marriage (even if they don't always vote that way). Is Obama leading the way toward greater acceptance of marriage equality, or just leading from behind?

Obama is way behind the curve: "Like every queer person in America, I couldn't help feeling a shot of giddiness" at Obama's coming out for marriage equality, says Bob Moser at The American Prospect. That joy, though, was muted by both the "agonizingly long wait for Obama to make his inevitable announcement," and frustration that he didn't go further and claim gay marriage as a basic right. "Obama has been less of a leader than a follower on the great civil-rights issue of our time," and that's still true."Is Obama's evolution too little, too late?" 

No. He's a trailblazer: "Leadership is about doing what's right when it is neither easy nor convenient," and Obama's historic embrace of gay marriage was neither, says Jonathan Capehart at The Washington Post. It was a risky move, and it could cost Obama dearly. Still, he was just putting his mouth where his money is because, while his words are new, Obama's actions have already done "more than all of his predecessors combined to bring about equity and fairness" for gays and lesbians."On gay marriage, Obama's words finally match his deeds"

Actually, Obama's "evolution" is pretty typical: The president's long, tortuous change-of-heart on gay marriage has been widely mocked, says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. But "Obama's journey on this has been like that of many other Americans, when faced with the actual reality of gay lives and gay relationships." Five years ago, he believed in equality but not marriage. But as he got to know gay couples and gay families, he came to see, "as we all see, that you cannot have one without the other.""Obama lets go of fear"

Americans weren't even looking to Washington on this: Taking a stand that most Americans agree with is "not exactly a profile in courage," says Jay Bookman at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It is, in fact, "more like a case of 'leading from behind.'" But if you look at the fast and steady rise in support for same-sex marriage in numerous states, "there's no real suspense in how this all works out." With or without presidential support, "gay marriage is going to be legalized." The only question is: How soon?"Finally, the president comes out of the closet"

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