When President Obama announced his support for gay marriage last May, it wasn’t the boldest political move. He had previously declared his position on the issue “evolving,” a non-answer that annoyed both his supporters and critics. And it seemed the president had not really intended to take a real position but was forced to after Vice President Joe Biden voiced his own support for gay marriage.
But now, as the Supreme Court considers two cases on gay marriage, it’s clear Obama’s words profoundly changed the gay marriage debate. His support for gay marriage immediately shifted opinion in one of the last parts of the Democratic base resistant to gay unions: African-Americans.
While polls differ on the exact level of black support for gay marriage, almost half of African-Americans in Maryland backed a provision allowing gay marriages there last fall, and opposition to gay marriage has dipped below 50 percent among blacks nationally, according to the Pew Research Center. And Obama’s statement made it easier for influential African-American organizations, such as the NAACP, also to voice their support for gay marriage, as well as professional athletes, even if some influential pastors in many black communities still opposed it.
Obama’s words also caused a profound shift among his fellow politicians. It had always been expected Obama would declare his support for gay marriage, but in 2013 or 2014, after he had won re-election by focusing on other issues. Instead, the president illustrated backing gay marriage was not politically risky, declaring his support for gay unions and then winning not just in liberal states like California and New York but in Ohio, Virginia, Florida and other places with sizable blocs of conservatives and religious voters who some thought would turn out in droves to defeat a candidate who supported gay marriage.
It’s no accident Democratic presidential hopefuls like Hillary Clinton and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and even Republicans such as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman are now declaring their support for gay marriage, as Obama has shown them that the majority of Americans are comfortable backing a politician with that stance. Democratic activists can now tell virtually any politician outside of the Deep South, where Obama struggled, that supporting gay marriage is not a political risk.
The president helped cement a shift within both the broader American public and the political world that means that these cases in front of the Supreme Court are less significant. No matter what the Court decides, public opinion is rapidly moving in favor of gay marriage, and it’s very unlikely the justices could stop that if they tried. Instead, most expect the justices to mirror that opinion and look to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, California’s Proposition 8 or both.
Obama did not tout himself as the civil rights candidate in either of his two presidential runs. But if gay marriage becomes commonplace throughout America by the end of his second term, something that seems entirely possible right now, that could become an important part of his legacy as president.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr