The biggest news of the week in terms of volume of consumption was obviously the President’s leaked statement that he personally supports gay marriage, although he thinks it is a federalist issue best left to the states, rather than a constitutionally-sourced right. Adam Serwer as is his wont has a good analysis of what this actually means. Glenn Greenwald pronounces the statement as an unalloyed good thing deserving of credit, even if it is cynical election-time pronouncement, and quibbles with Serwer’s mild critique that as an expression of personal opinion, it’s less groundbreaking than some would have it. They’re not at opposite poles, merely elaborating on the penumbral effects of the President’s statement.
Obviously, the President of the United States announcing his support for marriage equality is a big deal. A generation from now, it won’t really matter that he did so in such a qualified way, or as an election play at a time when public support for same sex marriage is at an all time high and growing. Greenwald is right that those affected by current inequality and their allies have a lot to celebrate.
That doesn’t change the fact that the President is showing himself to be fundamentally dishonest. Those of us who have known Barack Obama since his days as a state Senator know that he publicly supported gay marriage as long ago as 1996, and that when he was running for Senate he told a local LGBT publication that while he supported marriage equality it was not “politically intelligent” to advocate for it, but rather should move incrementally; and that in 2008 he took it off the table by saying he did not yet support it. In other words, he lied; he lied to the country’s social moderates and conservatives in order to get elected.
The chattering class that has decided that their job is to think like political consultants defend this dissimulation by saying that it was the only way he could get elected. This reveals something about the President’s probity; it is non-existent. The same way he lied to the nation’s moderates and conservatives in ’08, he clearly lied to civil libertarians and the left wing when he talked about ending indefinite detention, scaling back executive power, encouraging whistleblowers, the PATRIOT Act, supporting a public option, worker free choice, and reigning in Wall Street. He lied to them because he wanted their support to get elected. He’s not, in other words, a brilliant political operator and visionary leader, but a mendacious panderer, so much so that his election-season pronouncements are not reliable. And that’s the major point. Obviously, he is willing to misrepresent his actual beliefs, sometimes completely, when it’s time to get elected.
His track record shows it, and this 360 degree turn, while good because it ends a harmful charade, reinforces that what he says when trying to get elected is not to be trusted. He will readily misinform the public about what he believes and what he will pursue once elected. His liberal supporters consider his lies to moderates and conservatives to be smart election season maneuvering, but for some reason expect us to take at face value his election-year economic populist left turn. Why though? The man is inveterate in this regard. He lied to the American public for nearly a decade about his position on marriage equality. And only now that the political risks have diminished considerably is he willing to the tell the truth. The act was a good one, and history will look kindly on it. But the volumes it speaks are less kind to the actor.
UPDATE: Dahlia Lithwick makes a great argument for abandoning cynicism. It’s a good argument, and it bears repeating that the President of the most culturally influential nation on Earth publicly supporting gay marriage is a good thing, something with profound psychological and social long-term effects. It is not that the statement is not a good and important thing that just as easily may not have happened. That cannot, though, change the fact that the President misrepresented his belief for political expediency, and that that fact implicates his character or, more practically speaking, is a compelling cause for serious doubt in his election time pronouncements.