The Evolving Evolution

It’s entirely unclear whether it’s a matter of appropriate or really bad timing, but the president has hastily arranged an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts this afternoon on an undisclosed set of topics. Speculation is spreading that Obama will take the occasion to clarify his position on same-sex marriage and related issues, after several days of media attention to the subject, spurred by what seem to have been off-message remarks from Joe Biden and Arne Duncan, followed by the landslide approval of Amendment One (which Obama had officially opposed) in North Carolina.

Insofar as the president has repeatedly described his views on gay marriage as “evolving” (presumably in a more progressive direction), it would be an excellent time for him to arrive at a clear and defensible destination. Recent polling on the topic indicates slowly growing support for marriage equality, with an underlying dynamic of ever-increasing partisan and generational polarization. Most notably, the latest Gallup survey showing a narrow 50-48 margin in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage showed independents approving legalization by a 57-40 margin.

Some observers have suggested that an immediate obstacle to the further “evolution” of Obama’s views is the relatively high level of opposition to marriage equality persisting among key elements of the Democratic “base,” particularly African-Americans and Hispanics. But the former are hardly going to defect from support of Obama over this issue. And the latter also have other fish to fry; it’s unlikely that large numbers of Democratic-leaning Hispanics will overlook Mitt Romney and the GOP’s troublesome positions on immigration and the economy in order to defect over gay marriage (or for that matter, abortion).

More to the immediate point, Obama may no longer have the luxury of “evolving,” given the steadily mounting pressure to place a commitment to marriage equality in the 2012 Democratic platform. Any move by the White House to squelch that effort will be viewed as a sign of hostility rather than thoughtfulness.

You could say the vote in NC showed how toxic this subject remains for an Obama campaign trying to hold onto the states it won in 2008. But you could also say it shows a highly nuanced position on the subject–yes to this, no to that, maybe to this–is not helpful, either, since Tar Heel State voters approved a ballot initiative contradicting their own apparent support for civil unions as opposed to same-sex marriage.

All in all, it would appear to be time for the president to speak plainly. Looking at the larger landscape of issues, there are worse things that could happen to him than a 2012 general election in which the positions of the two parties on cultural freedom suddenly become relevant to voters.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.