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Now that the exultation over President Obama’s symbolic gesture in favor of gay marriage has subsided, is it possible to ask exactly what he’s done? Politically speaking, I mean. He’s a politician, after all, not a moral philosopher.

As I understand it, the president has proposed no legislation nor promised any. Indeed, he’s said that the question of whether same gender couples can legally marry is up to the states, in which case nothing’s apt to change in the foreseeable future.

It’s interesting to speculate if any Southern state would have voted to allow interracial marriages like that of Obama’s parents had the Supreme Court not decided the issue in Loving vs. Virginia. Probably not.

So for this Newsweek sanctifies Obama as “America’s First Gay President” in a cover portrait with a multi-colored halo? (Never mind that historians suspect that James Buchanan, a lifelong bachelor whose close relationship with an Alabama Senator prompted Andrew Jackson to call him “Aunt Fancy,” preceded him by 156 years.) Is the magazine trying to make Obama look like a self-regarding fop?

On MSNBC’s “Chris Matthews Show,” Andrew Sullivan, the Newsweek article’s author, spoke of weeping when he heard Obama say, in effect, “I am his equal.” The ubiquitous British-American pundit who has long crusaded for gay rights (and who idolized George W. Bush in his flight suit incarnation) explained that “to hear the president who is in some ways a father figure speak to that—the tears came down like with many in our families.”

Up to a point, I can empathize. It’s an emotional issue, acceptance. Like Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, however, I do find it a bit thick coming from a pundit who had previously written that “the desperate desire among some gays for some kind of affirmation from one man is a little sad.” But then Obama’s not a father figure to me unless Bush was—or Bill Clinton. Some people’s need to make him one strikes me as a little creepy.

So back to the politics of the thing. The president’s change of heart, or “evolution,” if you prefer, came the day after North Carolina—a state he’d won narrowly in the 2008 election—voted to forbid same sex marriages and even “civil unions” by a thunderous majority. If Obama hopes to carry North Carolina in 2012, he would appear to be going about it in the oddest possible way.

Not to mention Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and several other states Obama needs to be re-elected. Some thirty-one states have rejected gay marriage at the ballot box, and doubtless more will follow if given the chance. So when 67 percent of voters asked in a recent CBS News/New York Times poll say they think Obama changed his stance “mostly for political reasons,” I’m inclined to say “Really? I thought the man could count.”

Of course not everybody’s as obsessed with the issue, as, say, Rick Santorum, who has expressed fears that letting Uncle Ted make an honest man of his special friend Arnold would lead to men marrying dogs. It’s certainly not necessary to credit the 52% of Republicans who say Obama’s new position makes them less likely to vote for him. As if.

Nor do I believe that very many African-American voters will support Mitt Romney because of some Bronze Age dictate their preacher drags out of Deuteronomy. So there’s no telling how the issue will play come November, although my instinct is to say that for once, former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer could be right.

“I think the president this past week took six or seven states he carried in 2008, and put them in play with this one ill-conceived position that he’s taken,” Bauer said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

This makes it all the more puzzling why proponents, emphatically including the White House, have failed to frame gay marriage primarily as an issue of equal justice under law.

Marriage can be two things in our society: a religious ceremony and a legal contract between two people to share their lives. Nobody thinks churches can or should be made to recognize unions contrary to their teachings—although you’d be amazed how many people are confused on this point.

Neither, however, do Catholic churches, for example, get (or seek) to invalidate Jewish weddings on theological grounds. So why should they get to determine how Uncle Ted and Arnold choose to live their lives? How is that their business? Or yours?

“It’s time to say what is at stake here,” writes Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick “true equality, full citizenship for everyone, basic human dignity and, yes, a fundamental right.”

Alas, it’s characteristic of President Obama to split every difference—expressing high ideals so cautiously as to arouse fierce opposition while leaving his allies holding the bag.

And if it costs him the presidency, then gay rights will go nowhere.

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