While many liberal policy goals have proved elusive during Barack Obama’s presidency, there have been dramatic advances on the issue that once seemed quixotic — the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Marriage equality was not a cause embraced by Obama until late in his first term, yet he is now a fervent supporter.
For gay rights activists, the pace of change has been striking, and one former Democratic adviser boldly proclaims LGBT rights could be a defining achievement of Obama’s presidency.
There are now 19 states that allow same-sex marriage, compared to two in 2008. Bans in the remaining states are being struck down by federal judges at a rapid rate that could presage a Supreme Court ruling legalizing it nationwide.
What’s distinctive about the marriage campaign is that it has been able to proceed at the state level, unencumbered by the paralyzing gridlock in Congress. In contrast, efforts by Obama and his Democratic allies to overhaul the immigration system, tighten gun control laws, raise the federal minimum wage and combat climate change have run aground in the partisan divides on Capitol Hill.
The paramount Obama initiative that did clear Congress — his health care overhaul — remains entangled in various controversies and its long-term legacy is uncertain. On immigration and many of the other issues, he’s resorting to unilateral executive action, often angering his critics on the right while failing to fully satisfy activists on the left.
Given those realities, Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay rights, makes a case that same-sex marriage and other gay rights advances represent a singular achievement for progressives during the Obama presidency.
“Barack Obama has accomplished more progressive social change on gay rights than anything else,” Socarides said.
During his first term, Obama helped change military policy so gays could serve openly, but said his views on same-sex marriage were still “evolving.” Under constant pressure from gay-rights activists, he endorsed it in 2012, and since then his administration has moved aggressively to maximize federal recognition of married gay couples even in states that ban same-sex marriage.
“The reason why he has that record now is because, publicly and privately, we really held his feet to the fire,” said Socarides, referring to the activists’ pressure.
Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said the changes unfolding at the state level on marriage equality reflects evolving public opinion and the growing influence of 18-to-29-year-olds. Among millennials, support for gay marriage is stronger than for other age groups.
“You have a country that is diversifying, and at same time you have a House of Representatives that is kind of a block against the wishes of the rising majority,” said Tanden, the CAP’s president.
Obama’s stance on same-sex marriage and LGBT rights will guarantee him “a very strong progressive legacy,” said Ethan Geto, a gay rights lobbyist and Democratic political consultant in New York.
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