He did the right thing. That is my easiest explanation for President Obama’s acknowledgment to ABC News Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts that he supports gay marriage. Some have criticized the President for making a political calculation, as if those calculations do not exist in other policy decisions, but the truth is that on balance the President is taking a real risk. By coming out (I couldn’t resist the pun) on gay marriage, President Obama is expending serious political capital on a very divisive issue during an election year. Not only does he risk riling up conservative voters, he chances alienating some of his base. So, if the President is playing politics he is doing the equivalent of stepping into a pool of water with a live electrical line snapping nearby.
What draws my admiration for the President on this issue is that he has shown real leadership. The President of the United States should not support the discrimination of Americans, and that is precisely what has occurred by states refusing to recognize gay marriages. We have had far too many Presidents in the past that remained silent when Americans were unfairly targeted and subject to bias and violence. President Obama should be commended for exercising moral leadership and putting the interest of the nation before politics and perhaps even before his own ambivalence on this issue. Like the rhetoric behind the enlistment of gays in the military behind “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell,” the arguments against gay marriage were always steeped in emotion and contrary to the Constitution. Our government should not sanction discrimination and certainly the leader of the free world should be the champion of human rights.
It is also important that the nation’s first African-American President took a stand on this issue. Given the history of Blacks in this country, it would have been hypocritical for this President to turn his back on a group facing discriminatory treatment. It was not long ago when African-Americans were subject to Jim Crow laws and interracial marriage was a criminal act. Sadly, some of us have forgotten that history and now contribute to the pain of our friends and family members with rampant homophobic behavior. Worse, the demonization of homosexuals has taken root in the Black faith-based community, not dissimilar to how the Bible was used to defend slavery and Jim Crow, and make the case against interracial marriage. Some of what I have heard from African-Americans on this issue sounds frighteningly similar to what we heard during segregation. Rather than reinforcing democratic principles too many of us are engaged in violating rights. Yes, in my mind, gay marriage is a civil rights issue. It does not have to have the same pedigree as the civil rights movement, but when a group of American citizens are denied privileges enjoyed by others on the basis of their race, gender, language or sexual orientation; that’s discrimination.
There can be, and I expect there will be, religious debates on this issue ad infinitum. We need to be mindful that the President is not a religious leader despite the way all occupants of the White House play loosely with faith. The President of the United States is a secular leader, elected to represent the interests of this nation. As President, Barack Obama made a decision consistent with his constitutional oath and aligned morally with basic human rights. The criticism that the President is playing to the crowd is unfair and defies logic. His painstaking path to this viewpoint should be admired in an era when most elected officials play to the poll. Even the most cynical must admit that it is in keeping with the responsibilities of his office that President Obama came to his decision to support gay marriage.
Could the President’s re-election bid be jeopardized by this decision? Truly, there is a faction of voters displeased by his decision but it is too early to speculate the electoral fallout. What I do know is that we elect Presidents to lead and not simply take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and play it safe until the next election. Yesterday, President Obama demonstrated leadership.
Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.