“On Thursday night, when same-sex marriage in New York State was teetering on a razor’s edge, President Obama had a perfect opportunity to show the results of his supposed evolution on gay marriage.
“Unfortunately, he did not take it, keeping his own views in the shadows. The next night the Republican-led New York State Senate, of all places, proved itself more forward-thinking than the president on one of the last great civil-rights debates in this nation’s history.”
I experience the Times editors’ exasperation in the first-person. Yet you don’t need to support same-sex marriage to experience a little cognitive dissonance at seeing a liberal president sit out the political battle in New York. It’s not as if Obama has any trouble poking his nose in state and local politics when liberal values are stake. He didn’t hesitate to speak his mind about the mistreatment of public employee unions in Wisconsin this winter or the treatment his friend Skip Gates received at the hands of the Cambridge police.
We nearly all presume that, in his heart of hearts, Obama supports same-sex marriage but is afraid to say so because it will hurt him in socially conservative swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. His reticence may have been an understandable and forgivable concession to political realities when the prospect of democratically enacted same-sex marriage was remote. But it's looking more and more like political cowardice in light of developments in New York, Washington, D.C., etc. in many people’s eyes. I’ll bet even a lot of people who oppose same-sex marriage see Obama standing aside while his views "evolve" as a symptom of a political character defect.
That’s an ideological reflex felt across the political spectrum that dates from the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson presided over the dismantlement of southern apartheid. In the process, he and liberals in Congress and the Supreme Court changed the face of American federalism by bringing not only discriminatory state action covered by the Fourteenth Amendment’s plain language, but discriminatory acts by private parties within the purview of the federal government under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Under the circumstances, that was the only way civil rights were going to be secured in the south. Being effectively disenfranchised, African-Americans had no chance to vindicate their rights in state politics through the normal democratic practice of coalition-building. The federal government had to take it upon itself not only to outlaw private discrimination, but to democratize the government of southern states with bills like the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That couldn’t have happened without the determined leadership of a liberal president. We've gotten into the habit of expecting all liberal presidents to lead from the front when it comes to any issue implicating a liberal view of civil rights.
Yet the politics of same-sex marriage and other modern civil rights issues aren’t much like the politics of Jim Crow. There are no quasi-structural impediments to vindicating gay and lesbian rights rights at the state and local level--indeed, what structural impediments there are incapacitate the federal government (e.g., the Senate filibuster). Most of the difference between Andrew Cuomo and Obama is explained less by differences of ideological integrity than by the fact that they’re both democratic politicians. Andrew Cuomo isn’t any more of an ideological purist than Obama, he’s just another elected executive answering to a more socially liberal electorate.
Maybe it's time we adjusted our expectations of Democratic presidents to the realities of American federalism.