When President Obama finally “evolved” on gay marriage in 2012, I wrote a piece praising Joe Biden’s big mouth—if you recall, the famously loose-lipped VP had endorsed marriage equality in a (possibly) unscripted moment, seeming to force Obama’s hand on the issue. We may never know if that admission was planned, but we now have confirmation that Obama’s shift would have come sooner or later. In his new book, David Axelrod acknowledges what everyone already knew: Obama was never against gay marriage. Unless, that is, he had changed his mind since 1996, when he wrote in response to a questionnaire: “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” Two years later, perhaps sensing that his decision to pursue a career in politics was working out after all, Obama softened his tone. In recent years, Axelrod had taken to lying on his boss’s behalf, explaining that the President favored civil unions but “does oppose same-sex marriage.” You might remember that last month, conservative writer Christopher Caldwell bizarrely predicted that America could still reverse direction on gay marriage. If Obama’s change of heart (from pro- back to anti-) had been genuine, he would have been a rare, walking example of the Caldwell Hypothesis.
As Jonathan Chait notes, the ethics of Obama’s lie are tricky. Even if you take a broadly consequentialist approach to the President’s actions, it’s not clear whether he can be excused. On the one hand, if he had issued a ringing endorsement of the freedom to marry, Obama might have undermined a fragile emerging consensus. (His endorsement has a way of poisonously polarizing issues.) On the other hand, when politicians lie, they only encourage public cynicism—and voters have reason to demand accurate, honest accounts of what candidates for office actually believe. It’s the only certain way to make informed choices. As Chait writes: “When a candidate contributes to public misinformation, regardless of his good intentions, he has done something morally questionable.”
I don’t want to dismiss these concerns. But in this particular case, their secondary importance becomes clear as soon as you pose the question “What should Obama have done?” in light of the phenomenal progress of gay marriage in America. Does anybody think Obama’s actions—whether his support or his lame, unconvincing opposition—were the decisive factor? This was a social revolution of astonishing, maybe even unprecedented, speed. It happened thanks to courageous, decent people who worked hard to change the minds of their family, friends, and neighbors, in their workplaces, schools, and churches, and who didn’t wait for the President’s approval or help. In fact, for a long time they did it in the face of fierce opposition from a conservative White House. Then they kept at it with the tacit encouragement and mild rhetorical opposition of a liberal White House. Among the many important lessons of their victory, future activists will certainly remember this one: There is a question far more consequential than whether presidents should lie about their true views. It’s how to create a political environment in which they no longer feel the need to.