By MARSHA MERCER
To those who were shocked, shocked to hear that campaign politics might have figured into President Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, I have bad news. It was ever thus.
Obama fired off a fundraising email the day after he said he personally supports same-sex marriage. Unseemly, yes, but hardly surprising. Political strategizing has been at the heart of the war over marriage equality since the Defense of Marriage Act was a glimmer in Bob Dole’s eye 16 years ago.
As President Bill Clinton ran for re-election in 1996, Dole, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, co-sponsored the Senate bill that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
Dole wanted to stir the “family values” pot, but Clinton grabbed the spoon.
As Dole shepherded the bill banning same-sex marriage through Congress, with the help of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the White House announced that yes, indeed, Clinton would sign it. And in September he did so, ignoring the outrage of gay supporters. The re-election campaign soon ran ads on Christian radio stations, lauding the president for fighting for “our values.”
Clinton sanded the edges off what Dole had hoped would be a wedge issue in that campaign. But the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, lives as the law of the land. Obama disavowed DOMA and has refused to defend it in court – but the law still blocks thousands of lawfully wedded same-sex couples from receiving benefits available to heterosexual couples. We’ve yet to hear how Obama proposes to change that.
In 1996, no state had legalized same-sex marriage. Today, six states and the District of Columbia permit it, but under DOMA no state must recognize same-sex marriages that are performed in another state.
Section 3 of the law specifies that for federal purposes ``the word `marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.”
The law effectively cuts out same-sex married couples from more than 1,100 federal benefits, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
Married same-sex couples cannot file joint tax returns, take unpaid family leave, receive surviving spouse benefits under Social Security or receive family health and pension benefits as federal civilian employees.
Obama told Robin Roberts of ABC News Wednesday that, “For me, personally, it is important…to go ahead and affirm that I think that same-sex couples should be able to get married.” But he dodged questions about what he will actually do, saying the issue should be left to the states.
A day earlier, North Carolina became the 30th state to ban same-sex marriage, reinforcing current law with a constitutional amendment.
It’s difficult to imagine how Obama can stick to the stance that his views are merely personal when he says fairness and justice are at stake. He stood for fairness when he backed repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that prevented gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
The main rationale for not defending DOMA in the courts was Obama’s determination that the law was unconstitutional, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. wrote House Speaker John A. Boehner in February 2011. Nevertheless, law is law, and the president ordered his attorney general to continue enforcing it.
House Republicans hired a lawyer to defend the law in the courts.
The Supreme Court likely will decide the issues at some point. For now, Obama has a campaign to run and pay for. One in six of his top bundlers, who have brought in $500,000 or more, have publicly identified themselves as gay, The Washington Post reported.
Obama is trying to walk a line between voters with strong feelings. He stressed in the ABC interview that he deeply respects pastors and others who believe in traditional marriage, and he indicated that same-sex marriage isn’t a current priority.
“I’m not gonna be spending most of my time talking about this, because, frankly, my job as president right now, my biggest priority, is to make sure that we’re growing the economy, that we’re putting people back to work, that we’re managing the draw-down in Afghanistan effectively,” he said.
But he’s not shy about using the issue to bring in campaign cash. For now, Obama’s strategy is to describe himself as a practicing Christian who believes in the Golden Rule.
“Treat others the way you’d want to be treated,” he said before boarding Air Force One for a trip to the West Coast for fundraisers, where his support of same-sex marriage could boost his haul.
©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.