NEW YORK— While many liberal policy goals have proved elusive during Barack Obama’s presidency, there have been dramatic advances for two causes that once seemed quixotic — the legalization of same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of marijuana.
Neither cause was embraced by Obama during his first term. Yet he is now a fervent supporter of marriage equality and has said it is “important” that Colorado and Washington state be allowed to proceed with their pioneering laws, approved by voters in 2012, that legalize marijuana.
For both issues, the pace of change has been striking.
There are now 19 states that allow gay marriage, compared to two in 2008. Bans in the remaining states are being struck down by federal judges at a rapid rate that could presage a Supreme Court ruling legalizing it nationwide.
As for marijuana, in November voters in Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia will weigh in on ballot measures that would emulate Colorado and Washington by legalizing recreational use of pot by adults. A ballot measure in Florida could add that state to the 23 others which have legalized medical use of marijuana, including 10 in the past four years.
What’s distinctive about the marriage and marijuana campaigns is that they’ve been able to proceed at the state level, unencumbered by the paralyzing gridlock in Congress. In contrast, efforts by Obama and his Democratic allies to overhaul the immigration system, tighten gun control laws, raise the federal minimum wage and combat climate change have run aground in the partisan divides on Capitol Hill.
The paramount Obama initiative that did clear Congress — his health care overhaul — remains entangled in various controversies and its long-term legacy is uncertain. On immigration and many of the other issues, he’s resorting to unilateral executive action, often angering his critics on the right while failing to fully satisfy activists on the left.
Given those realities, Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay rights, makes a case that same-sex marriage and other gay-rights advances represent a singular achievement for progressives during the Obama presidency.
“Barack Obama has accomplished more progressive social change on gay rights than anything else,” Socarides said.
During his first term, Obama helped change military policy so gays could serve openly, but said his views on same-sex marriage were still “evolving.” Under constant pressure from gay-rights activists, he endorsed it in 2012, and since then his administration has moved aggressively to maximize federal recognition of married gay couples even in states that ban same-sex marriage.
“The reason why he has that record now is because, publicly and privately, we really held his feet to the fire,” said Socarides, referring to the activists’ pressure.
Obama’s stance on marijuana is far more nuanced. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and the White House-run Office of National Drug Control Policy opposes its legalization whether for medicinal or recreational use.
Yet in August 2013, addressing the developments in Colorado and Washington, the Justice Department said it would allow legalization efforts to proceed as long as states followed strict guidelines, including keeping pot away from minors. Obama, an acknowledged pot smoker in his younger days, subsequently told The New Yorker magazine that he doesn’t view marijuana as any more dangerous than alcohol and explained his acceptance of the Colorado and Washington initiatives.
“It’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished,” he told the magazine.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and a leading critic of the so-called “war on drugs,” said such comments — coupled with the Justice Department’s 2013 memo — have put Obama out in front of most congressmen and governors.
“I wouldn’t call it bold, but it is significant,” Nadelmann said of Obama’s stance, which has paved the way for other states to consider joining the legalization movement.
Nadelmann drew a contrast between the marijuana movement — which he predicted would gain increasing bipartisan support — and issues such as immigration and gun control where partisan divides are pronounced.
“Marijuana lies at a unique intersection,” he said. “It’s a civil rights/civil liberties cause, and at the same time there’s the emergence of a legal market that could be worth tens of billions of dollars.”
Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said the changes unfolding at the state level on marriage and marijuana reflect evolving public opinion and the growing influence of 18-to-29-year-olds. Among millennials, support for gay marriage and legalized pot is stronger than for other age groups.
“You have a country that is diversifying, and at same time you have a House of Representatives that is kind of a block against the wishes of the rising majority,” said Tanden, the CAP’s president. “Immigration reform passed the Senate, then hit a wall on the steps of the House.”
With conservative Republicans likely to maintain power in the House for at least two more years, Tanden said a state-by-state approach is being pursued on some other progressive-backed issues. For example, measures to raise the state minimum wage will be on the Nov. 4 ballot in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, while several cities and two states — California and Connecticut — have recently instituted policies to provide some workers with paid sick days.
“These are issues that eventually will pass nationally,” Tanden said.
Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg contends that Obama could have pushed more of his agenda through Congress if he’d been more skillful politically and more willing to give Republicans a meaningful role.
“He doesn’t know how to play that game,” Goldberg said. “Now you’ve got gridlock, and the things he’s been able to do are things a president can do unilaterally.”
Others defend Obama’s efforts.
His stances on marriage and marijuana will guarantee him “a very strong progressive legacy,” said Ethan Geto, a gay-rights lobbyist and Democratic political consultant in New York.
“He wants to do the right thing on immigration, but it’s an incredible minefield. He pushed hard on gun control,” Geto said. “I don’t see any of these major issues where he hasn’t done as much as realistically expected.”