I want to feel great about today. Even though a sitting President pretty much did nothing more than think out loud, that in itself can be significant. It should be significant. It should be an important moment for liberty in the U.S. Hopefully it will be. But knowing that President Obama was pretty much backed into a corner by Joe Biden (Joe Biden! Was there ever a “significant things Joe Biden will do as VP” pool? Did this just bust any one that might have existed?) takes a little bit of the shine off of it. Knowing that he once supported marriage equality, then decided he sort of didn’t, or something, then decided to ride in only after North Carolina earned the scorn of half the country…that takes a good deal more away. I’m excited about the step forward for individual liberty, but the way it went down is a little unnerving.
Obama’s statement doesn’t change a single policy. He has basically adopted a federalist approach to the issue. To my knowledge, gay marriage also happens to be the only issue in which Obama embraces federalism. Obama apparently believes the states should be able to discriminate when it comes to marriage benefits, but if they allow cancer and AIDS patients to smoke pot, he asserts the supremacy of federal law, and sends in the SWAT teams. What a twisted set of priorities.
Moreover, because the federal government is actively discriminating against homosexual couples based on whether or not the state where they reside recognizes their marriage, there’s actually a decent equal protection argument argument against letting the states decide this issue. Or, better yet, for the federal government to just stop conferring special benefits onto heterosexual couples. Or, still better yet, to stop conferring benefits onto married couples at all.* And I say that as someone who generally believes in federalism. (And, to be fair, who isn’t married.)
I’ve been happy to praise Obama on those unfortunately few occasions when there’s been reason to do so. But this? This is a president half-assing it while still keeping plenty of political cover, and on an issue in which he could have effected real change had he had the courage of his convictions years ago.
It may very well be true that Obama took this step not out of any genuine conviction, but because he perceives that high levels of enthusiasm among the Democratic base generally and gay donors specifically are necessary for his re-election, or because Biden’s comments forced his hand, or any number of other tactical reasons. I don’t know what his secret motives are, but even if they could be discerned, I think it’s irrelevant.
When it comes to assessing a politician, what matters, at least to me, are actions, not motives. If they do the wrong thing, they should be criticized regardless of motive; conversely, if they do the right thing, they should be credited. I’ve had zero tolerance over the last three years for people who pop up to justify all the horrible things Obama has done by claiming that he is forced to do them out of political necessity or in cowardly deference to public opinion; that’s because horrible acts don’t become less horrible because they’re prompted by some rational, self-interested political motive rather than conviction. That’s equally true of positive acts: they don’t become less commendable because they were the by-product of political pressure or self-preservation; when a politician takes the right course of action, as Obama did today, credit is merited, regardless of motive.