I'm supposed to be impressed right now at our President's change of heart / Evolution / newfound enthusiasm for same-sex marriage. It's great news if for no reasons other than that A) it's fundamentally correct and B) it guarantees us a solid week of pure, unalloyed, hysterical pant-shitting from the right, which is always fun to watch. That aside, I'm not terribly impressed, as I tend not to be impressed by things that are cynically crafted to impress me by marketing professionals. This campaign-year announcement reads like the annual deluge of Oscar-baiting dramas, usually about mentally handicapped people, released into theaters every January – it comes off less as a genuine expression of belief and more as a Karl Rovian appeal to an issue that will fire up the base and receive absolutely no attention after the election.
If something is a right, or more importantly if one understands it as a right, it shouldn't take 15 years into one's political career to express support for it. We don't have to be wildly enthusiastic about things that are rights; I recognize that white supremacists have a right to publish their beliefs, and believe it or not I'm not wild about white supremacists. So if Barack Obama believes that marriage is a right that belongs to same-sex couples, his "personal beliefs" or however the carefully crafted press release phrased it are not relevant. If a right exists according to the Constitution and the law, then your and my personal beliefs about it are irrelevant.
These things are always patiently explained as a matter of pragmatism, of political reality. Americans are ambivalent or worse about SSM, so a candidate who endorses it openly is unlikely to get elected, so the candidate who secretly kinda supports it but doesn't say so is superior to the Republican who will outright oppose it, because Supreme Court nominations &ec &ec. I understand a thing or two about how politics and elections work. Perhaps, however, there is some respect to be won and political support to be enjoyed from being forthright and honest about one's core beliefs. In this era of deeply cynical politics, it's plausible that a Jimmy McMillan-style "You wanna marry a shoe? I'll marry you to a shoe. Next question." position might appeal to the overwhelming majority of people for whom gay marriage is not a political issue of the utmost importance. At least the stance would not come off as an expression of opportunism carefully timed to disrupt what was becoming a dangerously Romney-centric news cycle for the past few weeks.
There are many things that People dislike about politics, and the idea that our elected officials and candidates simply tell us what we want to hear is among the most repellent. Very few of us enjoy a good, solid pandering. It's possible that a "Yeah, I believe a right to marry exists and applies broadly" Obama loses in 2008, but I doubt it unless he happened to make it the dominant issue in the campaign (which, of course, he would not have). Despite the fact that it is extremely important to some of the loudest voices in the Beltway chorus, particularly on the right, the bottom line is that most people don't spend much time thinking about it. Though many people will express support or opposition to it when asked, even those in opposition would gladly vote for a candidate who appeals to them on other, more significant issues. The people most likely to flip their lids – religious conservatives – aren't voting for him anyway. So what was there to lose?
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad he said what he said. There is little chance it will produce any policy or substantively different outcomes – this one's eventually going to be decided in the courts, after all – but I guess it's nice to hear. It would be even nicer, though, to hear what the candidates think sooner than four years into their term when the disaffected electorate needs a little firing up. Absent your willingness to buy the contrived, silly "I just had a change of heart, never mind the timing" cover story, this is just another in what will be an unbroken string of campaign stunts on the candidates' part over the next few months. If you're wondering "How can it be opportunistic if it has the potential to cost him support?" consider both the intended audience – the left wing base – and the timing of the announcement and the motives become much clearer.
But, you know, hey, the legal argument for gay marriage is pretty obvious. So I'm glad he finally supports it.