On Wednesday, President Obama declared his evolution complete. In an interview with ABC News he said: “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
Gay-rights groups rejoiced; conservative groups scolded. But what the president thinks about gay marriage is, ultimately, symbolic. There is a different issue on which Obama could achieve real, tangible results for gays and lesbians, and gain electoral advantage over Mitt Romney: employment discrimination.
Obama has already done everything he can on gay marriage. His administration has declared the federal law banning gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), to be discriminatory and declined to defend it in court. He has extended spousal benefits to the domestic partners of federal employees. Marriage laws, on the other hand, are written at the state level. Even a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, which Romney supports and Obama already opposed, is not actually signed by the president.
Meanwhile, it is still legal in 29 states to discriminate against gays and lesbians in hiring and firing employees, and in an additional five it is legal to discriminate against transgender people. There has been a Democratic bill floating around Congress called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would extend the federal protections of the Civil Rights Act to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Thus far Obama has said he supports the legislation, but has not called much attention to it.
Instead he’s spoken out on gay marriage, which may come with some political costs in November. It is preposterous to assert, as many political pundits do, that black voters will be receptive to attacks on Obama over gay marriage. Polling shows blacks have become roughly equal to whites in their acceptance of gay marriage. Obama enjoys high approval ratings among black voters, and they agree with him more than with Romney on every other issue. They are also accustomed to voting for more socially liberal politicians, just as wealthy pro-choice Republicans have accepted that they must vote for anti-abortion-rights candidates.