When President Obama recently declared his support for gay marriage in an ABC interview, it seemed as though the Internet had collectively transformed into Marilyn Monroe breathily singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” while doing a sexy dance. Despite the announcement having zero implications in terms of actual policy, Obama’s statement was nevertheless hailed as a major civil rights victory, a momentous step forward for the cause of gay rights. Once a sitting U.S. president publicly “takes the plunge” and comes out in favor of something, the thinking goes, it must be only a matter of time before the entire country comes around to it. Personally, I could not feel that Obama’s “coming out” would have been more useful before North Carolina voted in favor of a state amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. It would have been meaningful if Obama had actually campaigned against the amendment in the state, throwing re-election cautions to the wind (as the state is a toss-up in November).
I could also not help drawing some parallels between Obama and Abraham Lincoln, although not for the reasons many people do. Yes, both men come from Illinois, held the same U.S. Senate seat and hold iconic statuses among African-Americans for different reasons. Yet both men also share tepid records on handling the enormous social issues of their day, and while historians and presidential scholars have been generous to Lincoln, I am skeptical that they will be as forgiving to the Oval Office’s present resident.
Lincoln was not an abolitionist. While he expressed opposition to slavery as an institution on ethical and economic grounds, he did not support its immediate abolition throughout the United States until 1864, when he shepherded the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress. The amendment, however, owed its existence if not its passage to politicians who actually endorsed eliminating slavery everywhere. Lincoln could have freed all slaves in 1863 when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but instead the executive order only liberated slaves in those Confederate states still in rebellion against the Union. Just prior to signing the order, Lincoln had written the newspaper editor Horace Greely, stating, “My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” Before his first inauguration, Lincoln backed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have preserved slavery authoritatively in the South in the hopes of preventing Southern secession. Thankfully, the Corwin Amendment never received ratification, clearing any obstacles to the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.
For most of his political career, Lincoln clearly considered slavery to be a “domestic institution” for states to deal with, a thorny issue that required negotiation and concession. Had the necessities of civil war and the Radical Republicans within his party not pushed him, Lincoln probably would not have taken the course that made his “Great Emancipator” legacy what it is today. History has been kind to Lincoln, and while he may not have necessarily been on the right side of history for much of his life, we as Americans still like to pretend that he was. (Lincoln’s views on racial equality were even less progressive, and I encourage you to read what Henry Louis Gates has written on the topic.)
For Obama, marriage is also a “domestic institution” for states to determine how to define. He made it clear in the ABC interview that his opinion on gay marriage “is a personal position, and that he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own.” The problem with this state-by-state approach is that it encourages inequality regarding an issue that is all about equality. Why should homosexual couples be able to wed in New York or the District of Columbia but not in North Carolina or California? Why should borders alone determine whether a bond of love and devotion has equivalent worth in the eyes of elites? Why should some states be allowed to enshrine ignorance and bigotry in the law of the land, denying basic legal protection to some, while others are allowed to be treated as equals? It is impossible to see any future for a state of affairs in which the only thing deciding if people in love can be treated the same as their heterosexual counterparts or as second-class citizens depends on lines on a map. Just as slavery is either just or unjust, either homosexuals are entitled to the same rights as everyone else or they are not.
Well, one might argue, if Obama is going to make a dodge on an important issue, at least he’s in good company. Yet there is a marked difference between the Lincoln and Obama administrations. Yes, Lincoln was a “white man’s president,” as Douglass called him, mostly concerned with white America’s interests, but his saving grace was a respect for the U.S. Constitution. At least part of what restrained the Emancipation Proclamation from freeing slaves across the country was Lincoln’s belief that he did not have such a power; as commander-in-chief, he could free slaves in rebellious states as a temporary war measure, but he did not have the constitutional authority to abolish slavery unilaterally writ large. Similarly, when Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus at the outbreak of the Civil War, he acknowledged that he had violated the enumerated powers in the Constitution and pushed for the adoption of the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act 1863 that provided authorization for the suspension after the fact. Even if he had been the dynamic, unwavering nemesis of slavery and all its defenders we sometimes imagine him to be, Lincoln still lived in an era in which the public and fellow politicians alike considered the executive office to be much less powerful than it is today. Its occupants were beholden not just to horse-trading on Capitol Hill but to the authorities, checks and balances set out by the Founding Fathers.
Obviously, today things are much different. From World War II to the Cold War to the War on Terror, the presidency has accumulated and consolidated increasing levels of prerogative power. The examples from George W. Bush’s administration alone are too numerous to mention: circumventing the Geneva Convention, authorizing warrantless wiretapping, holding “detainees” without production of evidence or trial within the judicial system, and so on. Despite campaigning on promises to do so, Obama has not scaled back these violations of the Constitution in any meaningful way, and it is apt to say that Obama has presided over, at least in regards to national security and civil rights, Bush’s third term – except that even Bush did not carry out extrajudicial executions of U.S. citizens.
Obama has not been shy about using the incredible power at his disposal. He did not hesitate to commit U.S. forces to hostilities to stop the massacre of civilians in Libya. He has said repeatedly that the country cannot afford to wait for Congress to act on economic recovery measures. Yet, on the question of gay marriage, he does nothing. To be sure, doing nothing can be a good thing, such as Obama’s Justice Department not defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet homosexual citizens deserve more than a passive president. They deserve an active advocate for their rights, a leader who will make bold moves, risk real controversy and even his career to stand up for what is right, not just what is electorally viable. Instead, they have a man who will not even sign an executive order barring federal contractors from having anti-gay bias in their hiring practices.
A large part of the reason Lincoln is so well-regarded by the present generation is because, despite the flaws often overlooked in his handling of slavery, he was still a self-assured leader who did not shirk his duties and took the lead in realizing his goals. That those goals lined up with the eventual triumphs of African-Americans in the ongoing dream of racial egalitarianism ensures his place in the presidential pantheon. Obama, meanwhile, will neither reverse the negative trends he inherited nor deal decisive blows in the political fights that matter most to his supporters. He is a master of the artful dodge, the cynical hedge. Unlike Lincoln, whose many mistakes and flaws were covered up by his strong and forceful leadership, the craven, milquetoast maneuvering of Obama will be an insufficient curtain to hide the opportunities he could have seized but did not.