Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Follower in Chief?

Is this a crisis of leadership?

ABC News today announced that President Barak Obama has relented, and now agrees with Joe Biden and his party's liberal base that same-sex marriage should be legal.

"I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married," Obama told ABC News reporter Robin Roberts.

Good grief - who's following whom on this gay marriage stuff?

The crisis of leadership isn't just that America now has a president who has both the will and the opportunity to do something significant towards making gay marriage legal.  The crisis involves the president's obvious cave-in to pressure from none other than his vice president.  On Sunday, Biden proclaimed on NBC's Meet the Press that he is "absolutely comfortable with same-sex marriage," much to the surprise of journalists who knew Biden's boss has been adamant in the opposite viewpoint.  In other words, Biden trumped the man who gave him his position - which is the only reason Meet the Press would really care about his opinions in the first place - and took the liberal limelight for himself.

It made for an awkward press briefing Monday morning, when the White House found itself in the undesirable position of trying to reconcile two obviously opposing stances.

"What the vice president said yesterday was to make the same point the president has made previously," chattered the president's press secretary, Jay Carney, apparently oblivious to the fact that nobody was taking him seriously.  "Committed and loving same sex couples deserve the same rights and protections enjoyed by all Americans and that we oppose any effort to roll back those rights."

What else could Carney say, after Biden's insubordinate ramblings?  Had the vice president held an ounce of respect for the president, particularly in an election year, he'd have followed his boss's script and offered some mangled mish-mash like Carney's to questions about gay marriage.

And Biden wasn't Obama's only cabinet official to publicly break ranks with him.  Monday morning, on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Education Secretary Arne Duncan responded in the affirmative when asked point-blank if he supports gay marriage.  He even said "I do," perhaps as a pun on the situation.

But there's no pun in the disrespect Duncan and Biden flaunted in their supervisor's face.  How embarrassed must Obama have been to hear two of his high-ranking, hand-picked officials rub his nose in an issue about which many left-wing Democrats have been harassing him for years?

Which begs the question:  how much control does Obama have over his cabinet?  After all, these guys weren't voted into their current offices.  They weren't appointed by some untouchable committee.  Obama chose these guys himself.  And of all the issues for them to pick to use against their benefactor?  One of the most divisive and emotional conflicts in American society today.

Is Obama's cabinet now steering this ship of state?

Maybe we shouldn't speculate that at some point early on in his presidency, Obama gathered his cabinet and gave them a list of topics that were absolutely off-limits when it came to holding divergent viewpoints from his own.  I'm sure many executives do that, and it's their prerogative, for the most part.  But the White House isn't some clubby corporate suite.  In many ways, the White House is the headquarters for the Free World.  Nobody whose office is on speed-dial from the president's desk can just shoot off their mouths to the press.

Unless they know the person sitting at that desk can't do much to stop them if they do.

Logistically and politically, Obama apparently didn't have much choice but to quickly close the gap between what two people in his administration said and what he's maintained for years.  And you'll notice - he didn't force his underlings to recant and support his position.  He capitulated to theirs.

What does that say about his ability to lead?  That instead of pursuing the viewpoint upon which he's already spent political capital, he defers to his underlings, like a driver making a U-turn on a freeway?  Is this really an "evolution" of an opinion, or a forced surrender?

No doubt, many of Obama's supporters will appreciate his switch, and cast their votes for him this fall brimming with confidence.  It could also be that the conservative blacks who've stayed by Obama's side for altruistic reasons may consider his support for gay marriage the straw that breaks the back of their political camel, already over-burdened with his other distasteful policies.  Maybe this crucial aspect of the Democratic vote served to keep Obama as set against gay marriage for as long as he was.  Maybe he figures he can win without it.

Now he may have to try.

Obama's handlers may attempt to claim that North Carolina's vote yesterday to legally define marriage as between a man and a woman forced his hand on the issue.  Maybe his "evolution" towards gay marriage flipped into overdrive last night when the media began clucking like mother hens over that politically conservative state.

But since when has this president seized upon a moment that wasn't there?  He would have had no political urgency to respond to North Carolina's vote if Biden and Duncan hadn't already thrown him under the bus.  Same-sex marriage was already illegal in North Carolina; yesterday's vote was mere constitutional housekeeping meant to enshrine heterosexual marriage in the state.  How much more likely could it have been that liberal Democrats flew into a kerfuffle last night, hysterical that their president was continuing to distance himself from the very issue that a bunch of southern hicks had successfully forced to a vote?  A vote they knew, in the context of Biden and Duncan's recent remarks, the media would trumpet all day today?

Maybe Obama is trying to steal some of North Carolina's thunder.  But isn't it really too little too late?

After all, Biden and Duncan already seem to have stolen his.
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