So it turns out that Barack Obama is a liar when it comes to marriage equality. According to a new book by Obama’s trusted aide and friend David Axelrod, Obama deliberately reversed his public stand on same-sex marriage when during his 2008 presidential campaign, entirely for reasons of political expediency.
“[A]s he ran for higher office, he grudgingly accepted the counsel of more pragmatic folks like me, and modified his position to support civil unions rather than marriage, which he would term a ‘sacred union,’” Axelrod writes.
Axelrod says that the decision never sat well with Obama. After one event where Obama reiterated his new public stance, he told Axelrod, “I’m just not very good at bullshitting.”
Could have fooled us.
Now, everyone has long suspected that Obama never really had to “evolve” on marriage equality. He expressed his support for it in 1996, when he was running for the Illinois state senate. His presidential campaign position seemed out of sync with the candidate himself. Republicans felt he was lying (although they believed he lied about everything). When he finally came clean, it felt a lot like Obama was getting a weight off his chest. No wonder Michelle Obama told her husband as he departed for the interview in which he officially embraced marriage equality, “Enjoy this day. You are free.”
So the news from Axelrod isn’t exactly news. But it’s still important. Here are five reasons why the revelation is worth paying attention to.
1. Obama clearly wanted this information known. In his book, Axelrod portrays Obama in almost entirely complimentary terms. The revelation that the president lied about marriage equality is one of the few negative stories to emerge in Axelrod’s account. Given how close Axelrod remains to the president, he would never have ventured to make the information public without Obama’s blessing. It’s inclusion in the book is Obama’s way of setting the record straight, even if it makes him look less than principled.
2. It explains the force with which Obama embraced marriage equality. Once Obama took the plunge, he unleashed the full force of the federal government to promote and protect marriage equality. That was the sign of a man who was really a true believer — and maybe of a man who felt the need to do some penance for past sins.
3. It’s a reminder of the 2008 political environment. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine that Obama would have lost the presidency because he came out for marriage equality. Voters were focused on the economy. But just four years before, Republicans effectively used the same issue to drive voter turnout in key states and secure re-election for George W. Bush. That was an ample and recent reminder that Democrats should proceed with culture issues at their own peril.
4. His expediency enabled the passage of Prop 8. This is the worst result of Obama’s misdeed. Even as Obama was carrying California by huge margins in 2008, voters were approving Prop 8. At least some of Prop 8’s success can be attributed to its support from black churches. Had Obama made the case for marriage equality in 2008, he could have influenced opinion enough to have changed the outcome. His 2012 announcement in favor of marriage equality dramatically shifted the opinion of black voters. It’s too his discredit it didn’t happen four years earlier.
5. It’s proof again that Obama takes the pragmatic long view. Obama is willing to bide his time until the time is right. In the case of marriage equality, he may have been overly cautious, but in retrospect it’s clear he was looking for the right moment to move forward on an issue he believed in strongly.
Axelrod’s book doesn’t make Obama a profile in courage. It makes him a politician. But discretion in the short term led to victory in the long term. You can argue that that was unprincipled. What you can’t argue was that it was successful.