On Gay Marriage, Is Obama a Brave Warrior or a Political Late-Comer?

The president didn't endorse gay marriage "in my own terms."

ByABC News
May 16, 2012, 6:17 PM

May 17, 2012 -- President Obama said the other day "there's a tendency when I weigh in to think suddenly it becomes political and it becomes polarized," referring to his recent interview with ABC's Robin Roberts in which he said publicly for the first time that he supported gay marriage.

But Obama hadn't wanted to announce that he supported gay marriage. He said so himself that he'd wished he could have "done this in my own way, in my own terms."

Unfortunately for Obama, Vice President Joe Biden made that impossible. After the veep stated his support for gay marriage in a TV interview, gay rights advocates pressured Obama to do the same. The president realized, that perhaps politically, he had no choice but to come out with it already.

Obama's reversal also came at convenient time, after polling showed that more than half of Americans supported gay marriage.

In the euphoria that has swept the gay community since, Obama's political calculation has been translated into a figurative badge of honor. Rights groups have celebrated that a sitting president has for the first time said that gays should marry. Newsweek even put Obama on its cover and called him "the first gay president."

There hasn't been as much fanfare for Biden, or Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who also endorsed gay marriage. Instead, Obama has taken the credit and has been praised as a courageous pioneer.

That hasn't sat well with gay Republicans. R. Clarke Cooper, the head of the Log Cabin Republicans, said after Obama's announcement that the decision to endorse gay marriage the day after North Carolina voted on a measure to ban it was "offensive and callous."

"This administration has manipulated LGBT families for political gain as much as anybody, and after his campaign's ridiculous contortions to deny support for marriage equality this week he does not deserve praise for an announcement that comes a day late and a dollar short," Cooper said.

Colbert King wrote in The Washington Post that "the issue isn't Obama, but rather the mechanical ways in which the United States decides if gay marriage is legal.

"At stake is the principle of equality — the essential view that equal liberties should be extended to all couples, straight or gay," King wrote. "That makes this larger than Barack Obama."

While progressives are more willing to rejoice at Obama's new position, few are oblivious to the political realities of 2012. Most people in Washington assumed that Obama had long thought gays should be able to get married, but that he was withholding his views out of fear that he might alienate independent voters in swing states who are more culturally conservative.

That makes one line from Obama's commencement speech at Barnard College the other day particularly prescient: "Don't wait for the person next to you to be the first to speak up for what's right."

Wonder if Biden was listening?

"Nothing's wrong with an elected leader responding to the will of the people and doing the right thing because it's an election year," said Adam Green, a founder of the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "If that gets us more civil rights and things like Wall Street accountability, fantastic. Democracy at work."

Winnie Stachelberg, an executive vice president at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said that Obama simply came out in support of gay marriage "when he was ready to do so."