Marriage Equality, Public Opinion and the Power of the President

When I first heard the news that Obama had finally come out in favor of gay marriage, I felt neither the euphoria nor the surprise that prompted such widespread public discussion of the issue. Here’s why:

1. I don’t like being pandered to. Of course I am voting Obama but spare me theatrics about how he cares about the left. There was significant lead in to the marriage equality announcement in the form of discussions about “evolving” opinions. Come on. What was evolving was strategists’ opinions about the impact that support for gay marriage would have on the political landscape. The end result, support of marriage equality, has been implied for years by the rhetoric of evolution and “still working on it.” Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take support for marriage equality in whatever form it arrives but we need to keep it real.

2. So what? The biggest legacy I am taking from Obama’s first term is a deep disillusionment with the office of the presidency. A candidate is really only viable for the office if they capitulate to the average (again and again and again). Once in office they star in the performance a rational democracy that obscures the workings of a very problematic bureaucratic machine serving the interests of precious few. In other words, it’s not about the President. When it comes to creating change, it’s about the Senate, the House and, most importantly, state and local politics.

If my cynicism is correct, the only real value in Obama’s correctly “evolved” position is in indicating to us that marriage equality has decreasing affective significance in the landscape of politico-ideological flag-waving (even if it has increasing significance within the democratic political platform).

Last week there was lots of talk about a shift in public support for gay marriage. I was  pleasantly surprised by that bit of news. It would be great if the President acted on the assumption that his positions might actually drive public opinion instead of reflecting it. Looking over some of the polling data, however, leaves me feeling that claims of the President’s impact are likely hyperbole. The support for marriage equality does not seem greatly affected by the President’s position on the issue – except in the case of African-American voters. In that case, I suspect that Jon Bernstein is at least partially correct when he suggests that this change occurs because Obama has shifted the democratic party line (left, for a change):

I’d put it this way: Most of us have no strong opinions about many issues. If someone interrupts us with a phone call and asks about one of those issues, we’ll try to figure out what our “team” says about it — in which “team” is simply some group we belong to that has high salience to us with respect to politics or, better, to the question being asked. In doing so, we’re apt to remember the last high-profile position taken we’ve heard.

So it’s not exactly that Obama influenced black opinions, would be my guess. It’s that African American voters who really don’t care very much one way or another about the marriage issue — but do consider themselves on Team Democrat — are now aware that marriage equality is the normal position of that team. Or, perhaps, that those who think of themselves (implicitly or explicitly) as Team Black now have a revised view of what that team’s position is. Or, perhaps, people who are on Team Church and Team Democrat now realize that those two are in conflict and they have to choose, while before they were getting only one signal.

If Bernstein is correct and marriage equality was not an issue the average African-American voter cares much about (which, as the above-linked polling data suggest is the case for the majority of voters), then Obama hasn’t really changed minds, he’s only erected a safe indicator of prior position.

A harbinger of change, yes, but not a change agent.

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