Obama's Past Tells the Truth

Published February 28, 2011


Obama loves capitalism like he opposes gay marriage. That is the larger lesson I take from President Obama's recent decision to stop defending DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act). What does gay marriage have to do with capitalism? It's all about Obama's true beliefs.

About a week before Obama's inauguration, the Windy City Times (“the voice of Chicago's gay, lesbian, bi and trans community”) revealed that on February 15, 1996, in the midst of his first campaign for the Illinois State Senate, Obama told a local gay paper in answer to a questionnaire: “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” That was news in early 2009, because Obama maintained steadfast opposition to gay marriage throughout his 2007-08 presidential run. (The Windy City Times reporter who found the original questionnaire with Obama's statement claims to have stumbled upon it only just after the election.) So it turns out that if you unearth previously hidden documentary evidence of what Obama believed about same-sex marriage in 1996, you have a better guide to his actions as president than his own campaign promises or early presidential statements from 2007-2010.

I think this pattern applies across the board. Essentially, Radical-in-Chief, my political biography of the president, argues that the Obama of 1996 is the real thing, while the president's “post-partisan pragmatist” persona merely serves as a cover for his long-held incremental program of radical change. Or, as I put it in the book, only the president's past reveals the full meaning of his plans for our future. That Obama favored gay marriage in 1996, disguised that fact during the 2008 campaign, then effectively reverted to his original position when president, doesn't prove that the same pattern applies to other issues. Yet it certainly does make my argument in Radical-in-Chief more plausible.

It's sometimes claimed that Obama's early leftism was nothing but a sop to his Hyde Park constituents. Yet it would be tough to argue that Obama's pro-gay marriage stance in 1996 was insincere, while his later opposition was deeply held. Gay marriage didn't become a national issue until 1995, when it looked like Hawaii's highest court might force legalization on the state. That prompted Congress to pass DOMA, as a way of preventing other states from having to follow Hawaii's lead.

DOMA cleared Congress with ease in 1996. So when Obama first endorsed same-sex marriage, he was taking an outlier position on the left. How many people “evolve” from that kind of stance to sincerely held opposition to gay marriage? Religious conversion might prompt such a change. But Obama embraced Reverend Wright's Christianity back in 1988, and Wright was in any case well known for acceptance of homosexuality and hostility to Christian social conservatism.

We also have an interview Obama gave to Windy City Times in 2004, when he was running for US Senate, in which he explicitly frames his new-found opposition to same-sex marriage as a strategic move, rather than a matter of principle.

By the time Obama published The Audacity of Hope in 2006, his support for gay marriage and open talk of strategic positioning were both suppressed. Yet if you read the book closely, the political calculations are clear. Obama never directly says he opposes same-sex marriage in Audacity. Instead he says that society “can choose to carve out a special place” for the union of a man and a woman. (Not “should” carve out a special place for man-woman marriage, but “can.”) Then he rests his view on the “absence of any meaningful consensus” on a new definition of marriage. (The unspoken implication is that, as public opinion shifts, Obama might shift, too.) Obama even says in Audacity that his opposition to gay marriage may be due to his “infection” with society's prejudices, so he pledges to remain open to “new revelations” on the issue. In retrospect, it's clear that Obama was setting himself up in Audacity for a policy shift as president. Although he ostentatiously wonders whether he's been “infected with society's prejudices,” in reality he'd never actually shared those “prejudices” to begin with.

It's also emerged since his recent policy shift that the Obama justice department has been “defending” DOMA in a manner designed to subvert the law. Obama has tailored his arguments in defense of DOMA in such a way as to play into the hands of the law's opponents.

Now if someone were to say that Obama's socialist views in 1996 tell you more about his plans for our economic future than his campaign promises or public statements as president — while adding that Obama's efforts to shore up the free enterprise system are actually designed to undermine it over time — that person would sound extreme. Yet this apparently intemperate statement accurately characterizes Obama's history on the gay marriage issue.

Have a look at the famous video montage in which Obama makes early statements in support of single-payer health care, then years later admits the long-term strategic intent of his presidential health-care plans to a friendly interviewer, and finally suppresses that past altogether.

The pattern of Obama's moves on gay marriage is repeated here. In leftist Hyde Park, Obama admits his radical plans. Later on he shifts rightward, while confessing to allies that his long-term goals are unchanged. Finally, as president, Obama moves into full stealth mode, until the opportune moment for a leftward lurch arrives. Re-elect Obama, and you'll see this pattern play out time and again.

Obama ran for office in 1996 with the endorsement of the New Party, a stealthily socialist group. I think the New Party's program and long-term intentions still embody Obama's goals. Knowledge of Obama in 1996 tells you more about his plans for our future than his public statements as president today. This has now been proven true for gay marriage. I think it applies to economic policy as well. In other words, Obama loves capitalism like he opposes gay marriage — which is to say, not much.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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