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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

May 10, 2012 at 6:30 AM

President Obama’s Embrace of Gay Marriage: An Act of Political Courage? Or Not?

Obama became the first U.S. president to endorse same-sex marriage on Wednesday. Please join me and other UW Election Eye contributors to talk about this decision—what it means, what impact it might have this year and beyond, and how you view the president himself.

SEATTLE — President Barack Obama made history Wednesday by announcing his support for same-sex marriage in an interview with ABC News. Today he is here in Seattle. In fact, this morning he will be standing in my footprints—literally.

Gay Marriage

Citizens outside the Manhattan Marriage License Bureau on February 12, 2009 (Photo courtesy of Flickr member Brittany Travis).

Obama’s announcement would have been a remarkable political decision at any time, and is especially so in the middle of a tough re-election campaign.

Here’s a remarkable statistic: 33 times gay marriage has been on the ballot in states since 1998, and 32 times opponents of gay marriage have won. The impact of this decision on the 2012 presidential campaign is a huge unknown, but there is more than a little chance that it will hurt the president. Obama won North Carolina by less than 1% in 2008, and two days ago 61% of voters in the Tar Heel State approved a constitutional amendment banning both same-sex marriage and civil unions. The president has taken a huge political gamble. Why he did it will be debated for days to come.

But he did it. And America will never be the same.

That’s what I was thinking last night as I delivered a talk at a University of Washington event at the Denny Blaine home of the couple who hosted today’s $35,000-per-couple fundraiser brunch. Standing in the exact spot where Obama stood this morning, I took questions about 2012 election issues, including same-sex marriage.

And here’s what I thought about: political courage.

Specifically, I thought about John Kennedy in 1963, after so much pain and humiliation for so many, delivering a nationally televised speech in which he called civil rights “a moral issue.” I thought of Texan Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, knowing that he was kissing the South goodbye for Democrats. I thought of Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” in 1983, knowing full well the power of those words in a world of nuclear superpowers. I wondered how history would treat Obama’s words from Wednesday.

Is President Obama’s embrace of same-sex marriage an act of political courage?  What do you think?  Here are some additional perspectives from UW Election Eye contributors. Please tell us what you think in our comments section.

Lindsey Meeks:

Source: Aggregated data from Pew Research Center polls conducted in each year.

Why now? Was it because of Vice-President Biden’s comments on Sunday? Was it because more and more Americans are supporting same-sex marriage, as Pew Research data on U.S. public opinion show? I don’t know the answer to any of these, and speculation of his motivations will continue to surface even if he explicitly answers these questions. Is this the ultimate tipping point that will lead to legal and social action that will result in legal same-sex marriage? Hmph, we’re back to the complicated questions. The only definite thing I know is that Obama is the first sitting President of the United States to publicly support same-sex marriage. And if it motivates Washingtonians to stand with him, and with me, and support same-sex marriage in November, and if this dominoes to other states and they legalize same-sex marriage too, then that’s all I need to know.

Daniel Thornton:

It might be worth remembering that Abraham Lincoln — “The Great Emancipator” — struggled with publicly supporting emancipation during his presidency. It drove northern abolitionists crazy and Lincoln suffered withering attacks from within the more radical wing of his own party over the issue. It wasn’t until the Union Army and Congress had basically forced his hand did Lincoln free the slaves. At the time, those who even casually knew Lincoln were aware of his deep anti-slavery convictions and before he was elected President he had written in support of abolition, but the Presidency has a moderating effect on politicians that often softens their most radical ambitions.

Will this announcement rival Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? Probably not but it will be as significant as many of those moments that define generations — like JFK’s assassination or 9/11. More importantly, it means that many regular people throughout the world will know that the man who heads the most powerful nation in the history of humanity sees their lives and aspirations as valid and equal to his own.

Lisa Kennelly:

Comparisons are flying around likening Obama’s support of same sex marriage to other landmark presidential speeches or statements in history, but no other event could have been as intensely and immediately conversational as this one. For a solid hour on my lunch break, I ping-ponged between Facebook, Twitter, ABC’s live feed (which never actually kicked in streaming for me), Yahoo, The New Yorker, the New York Times, my mobile phone to text people, and then back through again. I devoured it all, from the initial breaking news to the contextualizing breakdown to the lulz-worthy jokes to the…whatever this is. Often I feel that in our fast-paced plugged-in lives, we have no time to reflect before we react. But today’s digital content bonanza felt in keeping with the rush of emotions from both sides, loosed by the President’s statement, “Same-sex couples should be able to get married.” I wanted nothing more than to consume my fill of a moment in history, from every platform and channel I could.

Corey Murata:

In North Carolina, where Amendment One passed on Tuesday, a total of 21% of registered voters turned out to vote on whether same-sex marriage and civil unions should be banned.

Percentage of all registered voters who voted on North Carolina Amendment One (Graphic by Corey Murata/UW Election Eye)

That is hardly a majority, but in a primary election which typically gets lower turnout, 21% was enough to make a decision about amending the state’s constitution. If this had been put on the ballot in November rather than during a primary would the result have been the same? We’ll never know. I see this as nothing less than a failure of our electoral system when a minority of voters are able to alter our governing laws. We must find a better, more-inclusive way to address such important matters.


I can talk about this every day for years, it’s so important. No worries.
Address is 6811 46th Avenue NE, Seattle, 98115
Email is this one.
Phone is 206-795-8802.
Looking forward to it!


Comments | More in National | Topics: Barack Obama, gay marriage, Same-sex marriage


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