President Obama's announcement last week that he is now in favor of gay marriage has caused quite a flurry of commentary, but I think most of it misses a bigger story that is taking shape behind it.
A CBS/New York Times poll released on Monday revealed that two-thirds of those polled thought that the announcement was made primarily for political reasons. Even more ominously, the proportion of Independents who thought it was primarily political was even higher: 70%. Among those who said it would make them more likely to vote for him, most were in states he's almost certain to win, while among those who say that it makes them less likely to vote for him, many are in critically-important swing states. Media bias can easily be seen in the headlines various outlets gave the story. ABC and the Huffington Post, among others, ran almost identical headlines: Obama's Gay Marriage Stance Won't Cost Him Votes. On the other side of the spectrum, Fox News and the Christian Post both headlined their stories "Obama's Gay Marriage Stance Could Cost Him Votes."
I want to suggest that the more significant effect is not the decision itself, which many of us think did not signal an evolution of his position on the issue but rather a revelation of where he had always been. The more significant effect is on the perception of Barack Obama's truthfulness and integrity among Independents.
Independent voters tend to be more idealistic than partisan voters — in fact, that's one of their primary motivations not to be associated with either party. That tendency towards idealism played very much to Obama's favor in 2008. He spoke in positive, hopeful, optimistic tones about a new kind of politics, and he promised a kind of leadership that would rise above partisanship and appeal to the better angels of the American spirit.
What those independents have seen after three and half years has been strikingly different. They now realize that while he often presents both sides of an issue with what Morton Blackwell calls "sweet reasonableness," the ultimate position he adopts is that of a hard left ideologue. He talks about compromise, but then shows that his idea of compromise is for the other side to surrender. He speaks about keeping lobbyists out of his government, and then hires dozens of them. He speaks about ending the politics of special interests, and then rewards his union supporters with billions in auto bailout dollars while destroying the life work of hundreds of small dealerships. It is in this context that this latest announcement comes, and when seventy percent of Independent voters say that they think Obama's new position on gay marriage was announced for political reasons, what they're gradually coming to in their subconscious minds is the recognition that this President is not the post-partisan breath of fresh air that they thought he was, but rather at least as cynical, self-serving, self-absorbed, divisive, nasty and deceitful as any politician they've ever seen. His comments about ordinary citizens display not merely an elitist view, but something much closer to contempt.
To the extent that this latest move is seen as politically calculated, it reinforces this underlying and growing impression that this President is not the man he appeared to be when the idealism of Independent voters fashioned his incredibly thin résumé into whatever profile they wanted him to have. Instead, he's either no better than all the rest, and quite possibly one of the worst. When an idealist's naiveté is exposed and trust is shattered, it is not easily rebuilt. Contributing to that devolution of the perceived of trust and integrity is the most significant effect that his much-trumpeted evolution on the issue of gay marriage may have, and that may indeed send him to defeat in November.