We can't peer into President Obama's soul, but his statement last week that he is "struggling" with whether to endorse same-sex marriage is open to an unedifying interpretation. Given the president's support of gay rights in other contexts, his opposition to marriage equality raises the question of whether the struggle Obama referred to is between politics and principle. If so, we hope principle will prevail.
At a news conference, Obama was asked if it is "intellectually consistent to say that gay and lesbians should be able to fight and die for this country but they should not be able to marry the people they love." Obama, rightly, took the question as a reference to his opposition to same-sex marriage. His answer was awkward and unsatisfying:
"As I've said, my feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this. I have friends, I have people who work for me, who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions. And they are extraordinary people, and this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about. At this point my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have, [but] this is something that we're going to continue to debate and I personally am going to struggle with going forward."
The president could spare himself that struggle if he would analyze the issue logically. If he did, he would recognize that it's irrational, once same-sex couples are given the practical advantages of marriage, to deny them married status. Civil unions, while a vast improvement over the absence of any recognition of same-sex relationships, are almost by definition second-class arrangements.
The temptation is to think that Obama knows this, and that his reluctance to endorse marriage equality is more political than personal. When he ran for the presidency in 2008, it was the conventional wisdom that supporting gay marriage would be politically fatal. With shifts in public attitudes, that probably will not be the case in 2012. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 42% of adults now favor same-sex marriage, compared to 37% in 2009. The trend seems clear.
We'd prefer to think that such considerations wouldn't be uppermost in Obama's mind. What should determine his position is logic and the fact that same-sex couples across America, not just those in his circle, yearn for recognition of their relationships. Enough agonizing, Mr. President. Support marriage equality.