“Leading from behind”—not a bad Obama strategy, actually, for gay marriage

Governor Cuomo is getting well-deserved praise for his active leadership in passing gay marriage legislation in New York. President Obama’s supportive but basically passive stance on the same issue has received somewhat lower marks. I’m all in for marriage equality. I’ve criticized the president for his timidity regarding other issues. Still, I believe he’s getting a bit of a bum rap here.

Mine is a minority view. Frank Bruni notes the president’s “closeted pro-gay course.” Nancy Goldstein laments the president’s “Gay marriage wimp-out.”

Nate Silver strikes a similar theme:

….[T]he type of leadership that Mr. Cuomo exercised — setting a lofty goal, refusing to take no for an answer and using every tool at his disposal to achieve it — is reminiscent of the stories sometimes told about with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had perhaps the most impressive record of legislative accomplishment of any recent president.

It’s also a brand of leadership that many Democrats I speak with feel is lacking in President Obama.

The New Yorker‘s David Remnick is, in his way, even more harsh. He notes that Obama was “trying to win Virginia and North Carolina while winking to more liberal states. More than on any other issue, he was willing to sacrifice his true sense of an issue, even his moral sense, at the altar of the Electoral College.” Remnick goes on to say:

Everything I learned about Obama while writing a biography of him tells me that he is neither homophobic nor is he repelled by gay marriage, no matter what his personal brand of Christianity…. What is clear is that Obama believed in 2008 that on this issue he should not be a leader, that the price of getting too far ahead of the majority of the country would be politically ruinous and lead to the election of a conservative Republican who would be far worse, not only on gay issues but on much else besides.

…. It is long past time for Obama to plant himself in the camp of fairness, decency, and honor. In civil-rights terms, it is 1965 on this issue, but Obama is still acting like—well, like F.D.R. And that, in this case, is no credit to a worthy and ambitious Presidency.

I can’t blame Bruni, Goldstein, Silver and Remnick for calling the president out. The LBGT community and its allies are right to prod and to shame the president into doing more. They are also right to note the intellectual and moral shortcomings of the various compromises that fall short of full marriage equality.

But I’m not ready to blame Obama, either. Andrew Cuomo’s LBJ-style courting of upstate legislators doesn’t teach us much about what President Obama could do to or for Max Baucus or Charles Grassley in health reform.

The president’s “leadership from behind” strategy is easy to deride, but the Lord works in mysterious ways. On this issue, anyway, it’s working pretty well. Rapidly changing public opinion is bringing gay marriage closer to reality. The battle is being won by the LGBT community and its allies. It’s not being given as a gift by any charismatic politician, however useful Andrew Cuomo has been to close things out in New York.

Moreover, I fear the president is basically correct that moving too far ahead of the country would bring a heavy political price, not least to the LGBT community itself. The electoral college matters, and he faces a knife fight for reelection. He must focus on the economic crisis, in all of its complexity and difficulty. He should use the power of his office to reduce anti-gay discrimination, end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and more. But he’s wise to keep a little distance, too.

Full-throated presidential support for marriage equality would be the satisfying, morally consistent and right position. I’m not sure that would actually hasten social progress at this point. For the president to inject himself personally in state gay marriage fights would provide an all-too-convenient rallying point for socially conservative backlash. It would also lend this issue a national partisan polarization that, at this moment, would be unhelpful. After all, four New York Republicans voted for this bill. The Republican leadership allowed the bill to reach the floor. Had President Obama become the face of this issue, that would have been harder to do.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

17 thoughts on ““Leading from behind”—not a bad Obama strategy, actually, for gay marriage”

  1. It may be an effective political strategy in a threading-the-needle sense, but it is most certainly not leading, even from behind.

  2. Harold is absolutely right. If President Obama had been seen to be pushing this bill it would have failed. Let’s not forget that Cuomo is being hailed for his behind the scenes lobbying with political donors on this one, not for his series of noble and recordable speeches to sway public opinion.

  3. To me, a relatively old person, the progress on gay marriage and gays in military service has been remarkably rapid. Don’t these kinds of cultural change tend to slow down to the pace of generational change, or slower? I can remember in the 1960s and 1970s, liberals speaking on these issues would earnestly deny the conservative charge that liberalizing reform would end in a demand for “gay marriage”.

    Attitudes have shifted in my lifetime from the Dark Age of the 1950s, when homosexuals were legally barred from a broad range of occupations by “morals clauses” in employment contracts and professional licensing, and even the mention of homosexuality was subject to broad censorship — no explicit reference could be made in movies or on the New York stage, and the postmaster barred both political and prurient literture from the mails; letting gays socialize in a bar was grounds to revoke a liquor license. A lot of the McCarthy era witchhunts were actually focused on rooting homosexuals out of government employment.

    I do think there’s been a snowball effect, if that’s the right metaphor, as one step forward has led to another and another, along an ever broader social front.

    There were always some people, and some sub-cultures, where homosexuality was regarded with acceptance or indifference, of course. Fire Island and several similar resorts were “artists’ colonies” back in the day, and we all knew what “bohemian” meant. It was the people, for whom, homosexuality, and maybe sexuality in general, marked important taboos, and, who, to respect the taboo, pretended that homosexuality did not exist, and, when confronted, responded (as people will, where taboos are concerned) with a mix of denial, outrage, fear of impurity, and violent contempt — it was these people, who had to lose their sense of taboo. (The weirdness of denial was well illustrated by the popularity of Liberace, who successfully pressed a libel suit in Britain against a newspaper, which noticed his flamboyant homosexuality and commented on it.)

    In the 1950s and well into the 1960s, the “discovery” of a “ring” of homosexuals, or a city “clean-up” campaign to rid the city of homosexuals, were fixtures of mayoral campaigns and newspaper investigatory journalism. Such periodic hysterias shaped the politics, and reinforced the taboo, which was further legitimated by the “morals” requirements in professional licensing and censorship of periodicals, books and movies. The landmark Stonewall Riot was a consequence, I believe, of a routine police “clean-up” campaign in connection with a NYC mayoral campaign; police beating up prostitues, homosexuals and transvestites, and raiding unlicensed bars, was a routine part of keeping New York’s seamier life seamy (in accord with prescribed taboos), going back to the 19th century.

    The necessary change in attitude was a loss of those taboos surrounding sex. The Sexual Revolution, which took place over 25 years centered on 1967, cleared the way, I suppose. It was the sexual revolution, which transformed marriage from a license from the state (and church) for intimate sexual behavior, into a voluntary, contractual association between two individuals. Pretty much all sexual activity outside marriage was taboo, and, one might add, illegal — in the 1950s, every state penalized adultery and fornication, as well as sodomy, and some, I believe, even prohibited masturbation. Pre-marital sex was taboo and shocking enough in the 1950s that unmarried (straight) couples might have a hard time renting an apartment to live together, and movies put beautiful people in twin beds and pajamas, a lot. My mother, a school teacher, when my father, her then-boyfriend, returned from WWII, was prohibited by her employment contract from marrying or getting pregnant; she did both, of course, and lost her job in a scandal, that angered and shamed her for years afterward.

    The breakdown of taboo was accomplished over a very long time, by continual political discussion and increasingly frequent dramatic portrayal. I can remember in the 1960s and 1970s, liberals speaking on gay rights issues would earnestly deny the conservative charge that liberalizing reform would end in a demand for “gay marriage”. The dramatic portrayals gradually lost their shock value, and their ritualized sympathy — in the 1950s, gay characters were isolated and single and usually met a violent end by suicide or worse — the invisible gay character in that Elizabeth Taylor / Katherine Hepburn classic, Suddenly Last Summer was literally eaten alive, as I recall.

    The persistent and increasing scale of protest, even when it failed, sometimes, to head off a political reversal in the courts or legislatures, contributed to the erosion of the power of taboo. AIDS, which seemed to have the potential to give biological substance to the concerns about ritual purity, oddly seemed in the end, the occasion for renewing and reinforcing the propaganda attacking taboo. Horror stories of hostile families separating committed couples, and wielding hospital rules about visitation or legal rules about inheritance and guardianship seemed to be somewhat effective.

    Karl Rove’s strategy of using state referendums on gay marriage to get out a socially conservative vote, which would boost Bush’s 2004 electoral support, contributed to the rapid erosion of taboo. The Republicans pushed on the hot button too often — they wore it out, with precisely the people, for whom it still has the most currency.

    Congratulating Cuomo or Obama on tactics, on an issue, where polls show supportive sentiment pushing on 70%, after a political and cultural movement of 60+ years in the making, seems a trifle short-sighted. Not only are Cuomo and Obama playing only cameo roles in the grand scheme of this thing, but at the end of the day, they are pushing bank-loving austerity, which destroys jobs, lives and the social safety net, in their full-time day jobs. I wouldn’t want to forget that.

  4. I am of Bruce Wilder’s generation, and his comment reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother in the mid to late 1960s, when I was in my later teens and she was in her forties. She was a liberal and secular person, and she referred to pre-marital sex as “immoral.” I asked her how sex between consenting adults could be immoral, and her only answer was that it just was. It was definitional to her.

  5. Does Obama deserve his “bum” rap for “leading from behind” on gay marriage?
    Harold’s and Wilder’s arguments are probably correct. Of all possible semi-hot-buttons, this is probably the one least in his control and the one with the tiniest upside.

    What I do find interesting is the ever growing list of pundits (Frank Bruni, Nancy Goldstein, Nate Silver, David Remnick) who continue to wake up to the “this dog don’t hunt” realization. Some of us sensed it 4 months into his presidency. I’d say the meme is now reaching a tipping point. Is there anything more certain to destroy a presidency than the “ineffectual” meme?

    If Huntsman can get by the loons – Chait is probably right he can’t win the nomination – then Obama’s capitulation and over-compromising will likely catapult him from office. The country is craving for someone to do something. To stand for something. To narrate a future. Telling the country “not to panic” and that the economy is on track is something you’d expect Carter to blather. Or Mondale. Admit it: Right now it feels like Mitch McConnell is the real president. He is the one making policy, drawing hard lines, making news, standing up strong for his rich people and cultural warriors…

    Our guy?
    Leading from behind as usual…
    And begging Wall Street to come on board for 2012.


  6. “this dog don’t hunt”

    Obama hunts in one respect. He has succeeded in effectively legalizing Bush’s crimes. He has created a bipartisan consensus that the President is above the law. The President may invade other nations at will, without even having to invent false reasons for doing so. He may imprison anyone he wants without a trial, may torture whomever he wants, including whistleblowers, and may even order the assassination of U.S. citizens. Whereas Bush was merely a criminal, Obama has changed the very nature of our government.

  7. “Is there anything more certain to destroy a presidency than the “ineffectual” meme?”

    And anything further from the truth? Here is a President who has rescued an economy sliding toward a great depression, with no help, and implacable opposition, from the Republicans. He has played poker with the hands he has been dealt. Gave Republicans 2 years of Bush tax cuts for the rich in return for START Treaty, DADT,etc. He has passed the most significant health care reform since LBJ. Given the obstacles in his path I think his achievement is greater than LBJ’s. Given the Republican response and media silence to almost everything he says, I am not sure what he would have actually accomplished by “leading from in front”. Nothing more legislatively. But perhaps the professional left really prefer to gain nothing if they can’t have everything

  8. Johnny Canuck is factually correct and completely wrong. Obama has done a pretty good job–all things considered–on the legislative front. He’s played the game well, despite a few serious mistakes like asking Congress for too little stimulus money.

    But it’s a mug’s game, with the rules set by the Republicans. Obama has done nothing–nothing!!–to change these rules, despite such change being the centerpiece of his campaign. This is what people are noticing, and this is what is making Obama seem so ineffectual.

    Extrapolating present trends, the voters will have an unpleasant choice in November 2012. They can either vote for an unacceptable status quo, or vote for the crazy. The outcome depends on how unacceptable is the status quo, and how overt is the crazy. Obama is doing almost nothing to affect either one.

  9. Ebenezer, what do you think that Obama could have done to change the rules? I do not mean that rhetorically. Could he, for example, have done something about the filibuster rule? What rules do you have in mind? Or am I taking “rules” too literally, and do you just mean that he does not fight for liberal causes?

  10. …wake up to the “this dog don’t hunt” realization. Some of us sensed it 4 months into his presidency.

    Some of us thought it was painfully obvious way back during the primary campaign (and were reviled for daring to say so by many of those who are only now waking up to it).

  11. Henry,
    Here are a few suggestions. None of them are no-brainers: all have problems. But I’d like to see the Administration try some:
    – Press coverage. The press will do anything for “access.” Reward those that speak the truth in plain English, and avoid he-said, she-said.
    – Campaign contributions. Strengthen small money. He knows the technology; he used it in 2008. But he only applied it to his campaign, not progressive causes.
    – Thematics. What is the message of his Presidency? Kumbaya technocracy? That don’t cut it. You need a negative message and a positive message. I don’t see either. Maybe the Rs will provide the negative massage (i.e., they’re crazy.) But I still see no signs of a convincing positive message.
    – Aggro. Make sure that the Republican crazy carries a political cost. If the Republicans block lifting the debt ceiling, he can state (more in sorrow than anger, of course), that Republicans are doubtless reflecting their constituents’ preferences for less government, so their constituents clearly don’t want Social Security checks.
    – Negotiating positions. Don’t start with a reasonable proposal when the other side will start crazy.
    – Short-term polling. Karl Rove was very good at ignoring short-term unpopular measures if there was a long-term gain. I’d say that Obama’s Gitmo cave was a good example of ignoring this.
    – Recess appointments.
    – There are others, I’m sure.

  12. And this is how Republicans have won for 30 years. By having Democrats do their work for them. What could be easier? I don’t see the gay marriage issue as affecting Obama electorally at all. He repealed DADT, which is the federal statute that he could repeal. It matters to Bruni and to Silver and yes, to me, but the realist inside me knows that if it couldn’t pass a referendum in CALIFORNIA it isn’t exactly a popular winner. Prior to the 1988 election I worked with a woman who practically sneered at me that the most important issue was apartheid. Sure, from a human rights perspective it WAS important, but as an electoral issue? Give me a break. Her view was that because all the smart people in Cambridge were exercised about it it would be, whereas my experience living in North Carolina made me an outlier.

    Maybe it’s because George Bush never stopped campaigning that we see Obama as being too invisible, or something, and maybe in your world McConnell’s constant public whining about the debt ceiling make it seem like he is setting the tone. In my world it makes it look like he isn’t getting what he wants and has to keep signaling so people like us can wring our hands. I’m done, and this is one area where I think Obama probably should say, at some point, this is what the offer is. I’m going on tv tomorrow night and I’m going to tell people the status of the negotiations and the consequences of not having a deal. You tell me what you want. I don’t think that point has arrived, but it’s close.

    Can we at least be cognizant of our own status in the scheme of electoral consequences? We are the outliers, frustrating as that is.

  13. Johnny Canuck: Gave Republicans 2 years of Bush tax cuts for the rich in return for START Treaty, DADT, etc….

    Yeah that was the moment.
    Where leading from behind became “conceding from behind.”
    The diabolical moment when Obama kicked confrontation down the road one too many times.
    When he killed the revenue stream that the Affordable Care Act drew upon, as well as Medicare.
    When he empowered the Republicans to say: Look we are broke, we got to cut every damn thing.
    And to have that “we are broke” message resonate and rip-hold…

    Or if you will…

    What Krugman wrote two hours after what I wrote:

    What this says to me is that Obama cannot, must not, concede here. If he does, he’s signaling that the GOP can extract even the most outrageous demands; he’s setting himself up for endless blackmail. A line has to be drawn somewhere; it should have been drawn last fall; but to concede now would effectively mean the end of the presidency.


  14. Arthur – I was thinking the same thing.

    Barbara -you seem to be the only “progressive” with any self awareness here. You guys are SO far out of the mainstream. And if I were a progressive politician, like Obama, I wouldn’t pay any attention to you guys either. It’s not like you’re really going to vote for my opponent, no matter what I do.

    One last point – I thought Bruce Wilder’s mini essay was pretty good too. I remember when there were big headlines because a Johnson Administration official had to resign after being arrested on a “morals” charge. Too young to know what that meant, I asked my parents (both very progressive types) who gave me some obscure non-answer, but were clearly pained by the incident and the injustice.

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