Well into the second term of his presidency, Barack Obama has long stopped sharing his personal narrative: the son of a biracial couple, raised by a single mom, who became the first black commander in chief. His story, as he often said in the infant days of his political ascendancy, benefited from the civil rights movement, inclusion and personal grit. This week, major Supreme Court decisions and the act of a single mom in Texas retold that narrative for him in ways which will shape Obama’s legacy.
One ruling paved the way for marriage equality, the civil rights cause of his presidency which he personally supported. And yet a ruling handed down a day earlier deeply damaged voting rights protections for minorities, the landmark civil rights legislation passed by a previous generation of black leaders.
“I might not be here as president” if the Voting Rights Act had not passed, Obama said on Thursday in Dakar, Senegal. It was a now-rare and powerful nod to his unique story. The court’s ruling struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act, which for decades has helped make voting fair in places that have a history of discrimination. Essentially, the justices ruled that while the Voting Rights Act’s protections are still necessary, the manner in which they’re applied is antiquated and unconstitutional. The court kicked the problem to Congress to solve.
The ruling was a blow to minorities and many of the president’s supporters. But the Court rulings on gay rights were successes for many of those same supporters. Obama’s embrace of twin rulings that recognized gay marriage as legal and allowed it to resume in the state of California was as emotional as his response to the Voting Rights Act. In his second term, he joined the country’s shift on gay marriage, presiding over the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and speaking personally about families he and his children have come to know and whose lives would be bettered by the legality of same-sex marriage. Newsweek declared him the nation’s first gay president last year; the New Yorker draped his White House in the rainbow flag on its cover.
Just 17 years ago, another Democratic President, Bill Clinton, signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law, defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. And he approved “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Pentagon’s ban on allowing gay and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Supporters of gay rights saw Obama as different though he seemed to walk with the public rather than out in front on the issue. In his first term he worked to repeal the military ban. But until his re-election campaign, the precedent-shattering pol was still “evolving” on the issue of marriage equality. The nation was with him. Just four years ago, the majority of Americans were not in favor of gay couples being able to tie the knot. Now, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from April, 53% of Americans favor equal rights for gays and lesbians in marriage.
The Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act devastated civil-rights advocates. Obama said he was “disappointed” in the ruling but hoped Congress would step in with new laws to guarantee equal voting for all Americans.
Some conservatives argued that Obama’s ascension to the nation’s highest office bolstered the argument that times have changed so much that the country no longer need the Voting Rights Act. Democratic strategist Maria Cardona dismissed the argument as “ridiculous,” pointing to the 2012 election in which several states tried passing voter ID laws and limiting the hours of polling locations. “That is absolutely and single-mindedly designed to keep more Americans from voting,” she said. “There are still forces out there to restrict the vote.”
The day the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Court, Wendy Davis, a Democrat in the Texas legislature who was reelected in part because of the protections that the Act afforded her constituents, stood for 13-hours on the statehouse floor to block an anti-abortion bill from passage. It was a filibuster in its purest form, carried out by a woman who is, like the president’s mother, a single mom. Obama, who has occasionally lent his voice to the acts or losses of certain individuals across the country, tweeted “Something special is happening in Austin tonight,” adding “#StandWithWendy.”
The next day, Obama called the victorious plaintiffs in the marriage equality suits from aboard Air Force One.
“I think [Obama] rode a wave” on gay rights, said Heather Cronk, a co-director of the gay rights advocacy group Get Equal. ”I think his coming out publicly has been enormously helpful.”
Of course, there’s still a long way to go on gay marriage. One of the biggest questions is if the DOMA decision will serve as a legal basis for the 37 states that currently don’t allow same-sex marriage. And there are a number of Republicans who will almost certainly stand in the way.