BARACK OBAMA took cubic miles of guff for spending the last few years insisting his position on gay marriage was "evolving". Now he's finally come out and said what everybody knew he was eventually going to say: he thinks gay people should be allowed to marry the partner of their choice. This puts Mr Obama back in the locomotive of the train of civil rights for gay people, which is where the Democratic Party wants him to be. It's hard to fault him for making the move, on either political or moral grounds.
But it's probably bad for the cause of gay marriage. Until today, the issue had only a moderate partisan cast. Officially, the Republican Party was opposed to gay marriage, and conservatives quickly responded to Mr Obama's declaration by reaffirming their opposition. But the issue didn't have a high profile, and many Republicans of a more libertarian slant on social issues were steadily coming to the conclusion in recent years that there was no reason why gays shouldn't get married just like anybody else can.
As of today, gay marriage is once again a partisan issue at the heart of a presidential election campaign. Many Republicans who might have had flexible opinions as of yesterday are now going to find themselves psychologically inclined to move towards the party line. Mitt Romney will be forced, within the next hours or days, to come out with a full-throated argument against gay marriage. Republican office-holders will have to vocally support that position. Republican media outfits (Fox News, conservative talk radio, RedState and so forth) will have to join the attack. Millions of GOP voters who otherwise might have gradually reconciled themselves to gay marriage within the next few months will be held back by the ideological alignments created in this presidential campaign.
The announcement is almost certain to help, not hurt, Mr Obama's re-election effort. Those who are radicalised against gay marriage by this announcement weren't going to vote for Mr Obama anyway; they are Republican voters who might have been on the fence about gay marriage. Almost no Democratic-leaning voters will switch or withhold their votes over this announcement. But many Democrats will be enthused to see Mr Obama take leadership on an issue of moral consequence in which they fervently believe. Voter turnout will rise; the tone of support for Mr Obama will become more emphatic. There will be a stronger sense that Mr Obama stands for a vision of America profoundly different from that of Mr Romney. The move may help re-elect a president who supports gay marriage. But my feeling is that it will delay the moment when support for the right of gays to marry becomes a widespread American consensus.
(Photo credit: AFP)