President Obama’s Lame Coming-Out

The president says gay marriage should be left up to states. Which means he still doesn't see it as a fundamental right.

President Obama has come out in favor of gay marriage. Great. Two questions: So what? And now what?

Is the president going to send a bill to Congress repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of gay marriages performed even in states where it’s legal? When the lawsuit against California’s Proposition 8 reaches the Supreme Court, will his administration file a brief arguing that marriage—for everybody—is a Constitutional right that states cannot prohibit?

Or is this it?

There was a lot of celebration Wednesday when President Obama told ABC News that he “personally” favored marriage rights for gays. And certainly, that statement represents progress in the struggle for gay rights. Remember: President Bush ran for re-election in 2004 promising to pass a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Bill Clinton ran for re-election in 1996 by signing DOMA into law. But Obama is the president who repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The mere fact that he’s not gay-bashing for votes is a big deal.

Too bad it feels so half-assed.

First, there’s the matter of timing: The day after North Carolina voters approved a state constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman. It’s doubtful that Obama’s opposition to that bill would have preserved gay rights in that state—but if you’re going to take a stand, take a stand.

Second, there’s the matter of substance: What does Obama’s declaration mean? Probably less than meets the eye.

As reporter Adam Serwer pointed out: “The president stressed that this is a personal position, and that he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own.” That means that even in the president’s ideal world, states like North Carolina could still go about their gay-banning business.

Put it another way: It means that Obama still doesn’t believe that gay marriage is a fundamental right.

When the Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that states couldn’t prevent interracial marriages, it made a definitive dramatic statement: Marriage, the justices ruled, is a “fundamental freedom,” and one of the “basic civil rights of man” that can’t be infringed upon by the states.

Obama—the son of an interracial union born before that ruling, and a Constitutional lawyer to boot—is probably familiar with that history. His suggestion that states are free to legislate the matter, then, suggests that he thinks that gay marriage would be very nice indeed … but perhaps not all that important.

I want to join all the people who celebrated Wednesday as a victory for gay rights. Progress has been made. But Obama’s comments—until backed with some kind of real action—represent feel-good progress: It’s hard to discern much substance to them. The time for feel-good symbolic victories is over.

“I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” the president said. Great. So what is he going to do about it?