Friday, May 11, 2012

Obama's Well-Timed Move

When I first began this blog back in 2008, I devoted more than a few posts to the US election, caught up like everyone else in the stirring political theatre that was Barack Obama's rise to power as the first black President (not to mention the little sideshow that was Sarah Palin and her TV avatar, Tina Fey). In the years since, my blogging about US politics has waned in direct proportion to my increasing disappointment in Obama's performance in the White House. Granted he's been a bit distracted from the ambitious social agenda he set for himself during his first campaign by the fact that the world economy went bust just as he assumed power, and by the two wars from which he was tasked with extracting US troops. Nevertheless, what many have characterized as his "deep thinking" on so many complex domestic issues (including gay rights) has more and more often appeared as dithering, as someone unwilling--or incapable--of taking a stand.

Now comes the game-changing move of Obama's announcement this past Monday of his endorsement of same-sex marriage. While I believe the President is being sincere in stating that his own views on this matter changed over the course of the past four years (not least as a result of conversations with his wife and children on the subject--and on this see Edmund White in Salon), the timing of his announcement also reveals Obama's political savvy. As several political pundits have already noted, Obama risks nothing legislatively in supporting same-sex marriage (marriage laws are under state jurisdiction). However, he has succeeded in putting Mitt Romney into a something of a corner over the issue even before the latter has officially secured the Republican nomination. At the same time he has made this election about something other than the economy, an issue on which Obama's strategists must know he's vulnerable.

To be sure, Romney's response can and will (in some version) likely be: "It's still the economy stupid." But mere deflection might not be enough for both the socially moderate and socially conservative elements inside the Republican party, who will likely want some clarification of Romney's own stand on same-sex marriage. Hence that corner that Obama has placed Romney in: his clarification can only be an unequivocal denunciation of same-sex marriage rights. And while this might help him carry swing states like North Carolina (which voted for Obama last time, but which has also just enacted a state ban on gay marriage), it also further sharpens the contrast between Romney and Obama as candidates. And here the social issue might possibly redound onto the economic one, with Obama and his team able to paint Romney as not just as an elitist rich man seeking more tax cuts for the one per cent, but also as a moral conservative willing to extend a program of economic disenfranchisement to one of social exclusion.

And, let's face it, the marriage issue will also re-energize Obama's left-liberal base, who were in danger of abandoning him or simply not bothering to vote this time around. That Obama's announcement came just before the big fundraising shin-dig at George Clooney's Hollywood pad is no accident. Timing in politics is everything, and Obama, the first social media President, is aware of how fast things move in this digital age. And on the same-sex marriage issue, time just might be on his side, as the pace of public opinion is moving so quickly, and overwhelmingly, in the direction of its acceptance.

Here's hoping that momentum continues--and in the right direction--through to November.


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