Obama’s Tepid Rubicon

Of all the adjectives that could be applied to the current Thing Dominating The News Cycle — Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage — the most popular seems to be “tepid”. Other criticisms I’ve run across are in a similar vein: that Obama was wishy-washy, didn’t pledge any actual support for marriage equality, and generally speaking, why the hell aren’t we at the point where he could just say “Of course I’m for marriage equality! I can’t believe we have to have this conversation!”

(In case you couldn’t tell, I spend a lot of my time on the left side of the Inter-Blogo-Echo-Chamber-Sphere, but I can only assume that the right also had its share of criticism, which probably sounded something like “Rar rar grarh destroy our country rarh grar socialist grumble grumble Ron Paul smash!”)

I understand this criticism, and agree with a lot of it (at least the sane stuff, not the “Obama is a communist from planet Reptilia”). And yet, I can’t help thinking that maybe for all Obama’s wishy-washy, weasel-qualified luke-warmth, maybe it doesn’t matter; that was all that was needed.

In particular, I’m reminded of pope John Paul II’s statement about evolution in 1996. It’s remembered as a watershed moment when the Catholic church finally admitted what was obvious to everyone with a minimal scientific education. But if you read the thing, it’s as wishy-washy as Aladdin’s lamp in the middle of the spin cycle. Even the central assertion, that evolution is “more than a hypothesis” is an endorsement so weak that 98-pound weaklings routinely kick sand in its face at the beach.

And yet, in retrospect it turned out to be a watershed moment, from which there was no turning back. Even John Paul II’s successor, pope Reactionarius XIV (the X makes it sound edgy) hasn’t really been able to undo that, as far as I know.

So maybe the same thing’s going on with Obama. Granted, he’s not the pope. It’s not as if he can control the hearts and minds of a billion people (especially when he can’t even control his own vice-president! Amirite? badoom-sha!). At the same time, he’s The President. He sets the tone. And the fact that we’ve gotten to the point where a sitting POTUS can unambiguously, if tepidly, express his support for marriage equality, must mean that some kind of rubicon has been crossed.

Perhaps in five years we’ll look back and see this as the moment when the country released a breath it didn’t realize it had been holding; or stopped unconsciously talking about gay marriage in slightly hushed tones (yeah, that seems pretty unlikely, given that a lot of the relevant voices have been pretty loud). Or maybe just as the moment when Washington definitively figured out which way the wind was blowing and decided that it was okay for the president to commit himself.

At least, that’s what I hope will happen. I could be wrong. I don’t actually have a tingly Rubicon-sense. It might just be gas.

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