WASHINGTON -- President Obama's evolutionary leap on same-sex marriage is a historic advance in the nation's long march toward equality and justice. It is also a bold political gambit that sacrifices some votes in exchange for potentially renewing his image as a leader of vision and hope.
The truth is that it should not have taken Obama so long to recognize that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry. I'm one of the many observers who never understood how his former opposition to same-sex marriage could be squared with the worldview that emerged from his speeches and actions. It seemed incongruous to me that someone who so valued fairness and inclusiveness would have such a blind spot.
Nor do I understand Obama's criteria for deciding that his "evolving" view on gay marriage had finally completed its transformation. Was it only half-baked, say, a month ago?
Ultimately, however, history will care only that Obama was the first president to acknowledge that same-sex marriage is a national issue involving the civil rights of millions of Americans. The astonishment and joy expressed by so many gays and lesbians nationwide following Obama's announcement Wednesday showed what a big deal this is.
We all know where this is heading. Obama said that while he now supports same-sex marriage, the decision should be left up to the states. That would seem to bode ill, since 30 states have amended their constitutions to prohibit gay marriage; on Tuesday, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved such an amendment, with 61 percent voting to ban same-sex marriage versus 39 percent who opposed the measure.
But polls show that public opinion on gay marriage has been shifting rapidly across the country. A Washington Post survey in March reported that 52 percent of Americans believe it should be legal for same-sex couples to marry, while 43 percent believe it should be illegal. In a March 2004 poll, the Post found that only 38 percent believed gay marriage should be legal while 59 percent were opposed. That's almost a complete reversal in just eight years.
Moreover, polls show a clear generational divide: Americans under 40 approve of gay marriage by a big margin. This explains the rush to amend state constitutions, in what amounts to a King Canute-like attempt to hold back the actuarial tide.
But same-sex marriage is already allowed in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia. As more and more couples wed, courts around the country will have to rule on questions involving marriages that are recognized in some states but not in others. It may be a long, tangled process, but eventually a day will come when same-sex marriage is considered unexceptional and only historians appreciate that once upon a time it was controversial.
Obama's pronouncement hastens that day. It also has shorter-term implications.
It seems clear that his position on gay marriage will cost Obama some support in what promises to be a tough battle for re-election. The crucial impact will be in the swing states. North Carolina, for example, is a former Republican stronghold that Obama won in 2008. Will the people who voted so decisively against same-sex marriage be motivated to vote against Obama in November?
Some will, undoubtedly. But it was interesting that Obama's all-but-certain GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, reacted to the president's shift on gay marriage with a relatively subdued statement reiterating his opposition but acknowledging that the issue is a "tender and sensitive topic." The risk for Romney is that while his position -- he wants a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage -- is popular among Republican primary voters, it might be seen as mean-spirited and punitive by the independents who will ultimately decide the election.
Politically, Obama may have taken a big step toward reclaiming the future.
The magic of hope and change that suffused his 2008 campaign has dissipated after 40 grueling months in office. Obama's supporters could point to his accomplishments and cite the reasons why Romney would be a poor replacement, but the optimism and excitement were missing.
Obama could have kept silent on gay marriage, and frustrated progressives still would have voted for him. Instead, he spoke out when he didn't have to and took a stance that might hurt him in key states -- in the process reminding us of how he can surprise and inspire.
Did I just catch a whiff of that hopey-changey stuff in the air?
Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/eugenerobinson.