The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Longtime Obama political adviser David Axelrod recently revealed that the president deliberately deceived the public about his position on same-sex marriage from 2008 to 2012. Although he was actually in favor of it, he pretended to be opposed, so as to avoid antagonizing voters and hurting his electoral prospects. The president even went so far as to claim that his supposed opposition to same-sex marriage was motivated by religious considerations.
The president now claims that Axelrod is "mixing up my personal feelings with my position on the issue." I don't think this explanation will withstand even the most minimal scrutiny. Between 2008 and 2012, Obama repeatedly stated his "personal feelings" in such a way as to lead listeners to believe that those feelings led him to oppose any official state recognition of same-sex marriage.
Obama is far from the first prominent politician to deceive the public about his views in order to improve his electoral prospects. He isn't even the first national leader to pretend to oppose same-sex marriage despite actually supporting it. Former Vice President Dick Cheney admitted to engaging in much the same sort of deception from 2000 until he left office in 2009; he supported same-sex marriage as early as 2000, but pretended to be against it in order to improve his and George W. Bush's electoral prospects.
Axelrod's revelation came as little surprise to most political commentators, who had long assumed that the president had been in favor of same-sex marriage all along. But Obama likely lied about it in order to fool voters who were less familiar with his record than people who follow politics closely. Political ignorance is widespread even on very basic issues. The swing voters whom Obama most needed to reach tend to be even more ignorant than the rest of the electorate. That is likely why Axelrod and other political strategists advised Obama to lie about his position on the issue. It was unlikely to fool sophisticated political observers, but might have an effect with ordinary voters. Jonathan Gruber was not the only Obama adviser who advocated exploitation of political ignorance, and obviously GOP strategists are far from averse to such tactics themselves.
Axelrod's revelations have led to denunciations of the President by conservatives. But supporters of same-sex marriage also have reason to be disappointed with Obama. By refusing to endorse same-sex marriage until public opinion on the issue had decisively shifted and there was no longer any political risk involved, Obama clearly subordinated gay rights to other priorities he considered more important. Had Obama come out strongly in favor of gay marriage in 2008, he might have influenced the very close vote on California Proposition 8, which won with only 52% of the vote. According to exit polls, some 70% of black voters supported it, probably making a decisive difference to the outcome. Had the first African-American major party presidential nominee aggressively defended same-sex marriage at that time, he might have influenced enough of these and other Democratic voters to change their minds to alter the outcome. Obama instead issued tepid statements saying that Prop 8 was "unnecessary," but also emphasizing that he himself was opposed to same-sex marriage [but see update below for a stronger Obama statement on Prop 8].
In part as a result of Obama's calculated triangulation, Proposition 8 prevailed, and gays and lesbians in the nation's most populous state were denied the right to marry for another five years. A strong stance by Obama might also have made a difference in some other states where political battles over same-sex marriage were waged during the period when the he was pretending to oppose it. Obama instead decided to wait until the coast was completely clear, before he revealed his true views. Given the Democrats' very strong political position in 2008 and the unpopularity of the GOP, it is highly unlikely that endorsing gay marriage would have cost Obama the election, though it might well have cost him some votes. Had he been willing to take even relatively modest political risks to promote this cause, thousands of gay and lesbian couples might have been able to marry years earlier than was actually the case.
Rather than being an agent of "change you can believe in," this was another example of Obama "leading from behind," or even pretending to lead the nation in the opposite direction from the one he wanted to go in. In putting short-term political advantage ahead of principle, Obama acted no differently from many other politicians, including many Republicans, such as Dick Cheney. What he did was politics as usual, not the result of a character flaw unique to Obama himself. Still, this sequence of events is another nail in the coffin of hopes that Obama's presidency would be the dawn of a new era that might somehow transcend conventionally cynical behavior.
UPDATE: I should note that Obama also wrote a letter expressing more strongly worded opposition to Proposition 8 than in the statement quoted above. The letter denounced Prop 8 as "divisive and discriminatory." However, he still made little effort to campaign against it, and the message of the letter was undercut by his more general statements of opposition to same-sex marriage.