Obama and marriage: The arc of the moral universe is pretty bloody slow


Barack Obama, who ran for President in 2008 with a position on same-sex marriage that would have got him called a member of the Harper Conservatives’ social conservative wing if he were Canadian, has “evolved” until he now supports equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.

A lot of the commentary over his decision is ecstatic. A lot of the news coverage is, well, awkward. Is this how one makes a principled decision these days?

As described by several aides, that quick decision and his subsequent announcement in a hastily scheduled network television interview were thrust on the White House by 48 hours of frenzied will-he-or-won’t-he speculation after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. all but forced the president’s hand

Advisers say now that Mr. Obama had intended since early this year to define his position sometime before Democrats nominate him for re-election in September. …

Initially Mr. Obama and his aides expected that the moment would be Monday, when the president was scheduled to be on “The View,” the ABC daytime talk show, which is popular with women. Certainly, they thought, he would be asked his position on same-sex marriage by one of the show’s hosts, who include Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg.

Yet the pressure had become too great to wait until then, his aides told him; on Monday, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, was pummeled with questions from skeptical reporters…

And so it was that Mr. Obama on Wednesday afternoon sat down in the White House with ABC’s Robin Roberts…

Why, it’s Lincolnesque, isn’t it?

In fact, no. As a few furious observers are pointing out, Obama’s stance on marriage and federalism is actually reminiscent of the guy Lincoln debated in 1860, Stephen Douglas, who argued that whatever one might think of slavery, it should be left to states to settle for themselves. Lincoln fought a war in defence of the counter-argument, as you may recall.

This is Barack Obama, who has made a habit of coming as close as he can to being an embarrassment for liberals before finally tacking, as tepidly as possible, in their direction. A lot of the celebration for the President’s new position, to the extent the word “position” should even be used to dignify it, makes me queasy in the same way I get queasy when Canadians talk about how proud they were when Paul Martin passed same-sex marriage legislation. It took a year longer to pass that legislation that it was going to, because Martin played silly games with the Supreme Court marriage reference (and if you don’t like that link to a conservative site, here’s a link to a gay-rights site calling the same bluff in the same language) in an attempt to ensure that his big tent included Liberal MPs who hated the idea of equal marriage.  The Supremes, no fools, were not kind to that extra question when they finally delivered their opinion. I take the ex post facto lionization of Martin as a champion of same-sex rights to be revisionist or simply confused.

But then it’s not as though Jean Chrétien wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming into his own support for equal marriage rights too. In 1999 his justice minister, Anne McLellan, got up in the House to assure MPs that there’d be no gay marriage in Canada if this government had anything to say about it. When Chrétien brought in the same-sex marriage bill and the Supreme Court reference, it was because his government had finally dropped its formal, legal opposition to the idea.

In some ways, we’re all Barack Obama, or at least the modest majority in both countries who support equal marriage rights is:  We all “evolved.” If same-sex marriage remains and becomes entrenched in western society, as I have long hoped it will, then future students will have a very difficult time remembering why there was supposed to be any distinction between Obama, historic progressive, and Stephen Harper, progress’s own King Canute:

One more, more general, point. We like to while away the hours in Ottawa debating whether Stephen Harper has moved the country’s political culture to the right. I’m in the “Yes he has” camp. Exhibit A would be something Jason Kenney likes to say to partisan crowds: that in 1984 the right wing in Canada was defined by Dalton Camp, Joe Clark and Bill Davis, whereas today it’s defined by, say, Jason Kenney. I think there’s something to that. But it’s also true that Jason Kenney belongs to a government that permits gay marriage and abortion on demand; endorses official bilingualism; bought General Motors; and has basically thrown in the towel in Afghanistan. Left-right analysis is not the most reliable tool sometimes.


Obama and marriage: The arc of the moral universe is pretty bloody slow

  1. As your former colleague Mr. Coyne keeps asserting (however not in so many words), and has David Frum has discovered, and why I keep coming back to your opinion pieces, Left-Right analysis is perhaps the poorest way of analyzing anything in politics. If Left-Right is the x-axis, add Ideological-Pragmatic as a y-axis, and perhaps Corporate-Democratic as a z-axis, and at that point you get at least a half decent idea as to what is happening in any political ecosystem.

    • You have too many axis to grind ;)

      • You’re mauling my illustration.

        • [groan]

  2. Said it before will say again: Harper and Obama would probably be more comfortable running each other’s countries, all else being equal

  3. Whether you support gay marriage seems to be more of a generational thing than left/right. People under 40 are more accepting of gay marriage while people over 40 are queasy. Obama is on wrong side of history but because he’s a liberal he gets a free pass for his social conservatism.

    I don’t think it’s any of the Government’s business who we marry – man and woman, two women/one man, or six women – we should all be allowed to pursue our happiness. People should be free to make whatever marriage arrangements they choose, the bureaucracy should have no say in who we love and how we express it.

    Your point about Kenney being a paper tiger conservative is a good one. The current crop of Cons are just as bad as the ones they supposedly replaced when they founded Reform to oust Red Tories. Canada is a much more socialist country now then it was thirty years ago and Harper Cons have been eager to add even more bureaucracy and debt.

  4. A bit about the Lincoln/Douglas distinction: actually both agreed that the states determined whether slavery was legal in their states. Lincoln’s position was that the federal government could oppose slavery in the territories, Douglas’ was that the (white) people in the territories should decide, and the Southern/Confederate opinion was that slavery should be assumed to be legal. Also, in 1984 the Canadian right wing was defined by Barbara Amiel, Bill Bennett and Ted Byfield.

  5. Me and Mr. Romney support marriage between corporations.

    • Ten percent is ten percent. : )

  6. I wish commentators would get the Canute reference correct; Canute’s command to the tides to go back was not a demonstration of madness or backward thinking,or belief in unfettered powers, he was demonstrating to his own conservative followers that even he couldn’t stop the tide – a much more telling message for leaders today.

  7. “Why, it’s Lincolnesque, isn’t it?” Yes, actually. Lincoln, for years, did not support the freeing of slaves publicly because it wasn’t politically expediant. Private letters from as early as 1955 show him supporting the equality of all men, however in 1961 he was a main player in the passing of the Corwin Amendment, which prohibited Congress from interfering with slavery in states where it was legal at the time.
    Early in the Civil War, Lincoln outlawed the freeing of slaves from captured Territories, rebuking, and forcing General Fremont to publicly overturn his proclamation freeing the slaves in Missouri in 1861, as well as General Hunter in 1862 in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.
    Even the Emancipation Proclimation freed only the slaves in rebel states, leaving almost a million people in the bonds of slavery. It also failed to recognise them as citizens, only freedmen. Lastly, the 13th Ammendment, which actually outlawed slavery in all US States, was signed not by Lincoln, but by Andrew Johnson

  8. Fair enough, Paul. But as a gay man, I cannot stress how important it was to have the PM stand up in the House in favour of legislation to enshrine same-sex marriage in statute. I will always credit Paul Martin for that. On one level, I don’t care that he dragged his heels, had at one time been against SSM, or that his hand was effectively forced by the courts.
    As for Obama, I would throw him a ticker-tape parare if I were an American. The President came out in favour of same-sex marriage – inconceivable just a few years ago. We can focus on his motives, or his timidness, or the political calculations, but at the end of the day — the President came out in favour of same-sex marriage!!!!!