Among their many aspirations for his presidency, Barack Obama's admirers nurse a persistent hope he might be able to end the culture wars. And by end, they generally mean win. The real hope is a final victory for cultural liberalism, and social conservatism's permanent eclipse.
These hopes are overstated, but not necessarily irrational. Four months in, the Obama administration does seem to have a plausible strategy for turning the "social issues" to liberalism's advantage. The outline is simple: Engage on abortion, and punt on gay rights.
The punting has been obvious. On the campaign trail, Obama promised to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He still intends to - but not yet, not yet. He said he supported federal recognition for civil unions. His administration has ignored the issue. He backed repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. Don't expect that to come up for a vote any time soon.
The engagement with pro-lifers, thus far, has been limited to putting a conciliatory gloss on the usual pro-choice policymaking. But a formal outreach effort is in the works. The White House is hosting meetings seeking common ground on abortion, promising policy proposals geared toward abortion reduction by this summer.
Both strategies make political sense. Gay-rights activists are irritated with Obama, but time is on their side. Gay marriage is marching through liberal states (last week, Maine; soon, New York), and public opinion, steadily tilting in its direction, seems to be tilting faster in the last six months. On a national level, the issue still cuts against liberalism - but less so with every passing day. By pushing gay-rights debates off until later in his presidency, Obama is almost certainly making them easier to win.
Public-opinion trends aren't set in stone. But as Peter Berkowitz said in a prescient essay for Policy Review in 2005, the gay-marriage movement is working with the grain of American political history, in which the expansion of rights "steadily erodes the limits on individual choice established by law and custom." Our legal and political debates, Berkowitz suggested, are won by whichever side can argue for the expansion of freedom, and combatants who can't argue in these terms will "almost certainly see their cause go down to defeat."
Thus gay-marriage opponents' persistent disadvantage. They can argue from tradition, custom and Christianity - as Obama himself does, albeit with dubious sincerity, to explain why he backs civil unions but not full-fledged marriage. They can note the perils of formally severing the link between marriage and childbearing in a society where far too many children are born outside of wedlock as it is. But supporters of gay marriage are the only ones making an argument from personal liberty - the freedom to marry, the right to marry - and that has made all the difference.
On abortion, though, the picture is very different. The pro-life movement is arguably more comfortable with the language of rights and liberties than its opponents. Abortion foes are defending a right to life grounded in the Declaration of Independence, after all, whereas pro-choicers are defending more nebulous rights (privacy, autonomy, etc.) supposedly grounded in "penumbras" and "emanations" from the Constitution.
This helps explain why Americans younger than 35, while more sympathetic to gay marriage than their parents, also tend to be slightly more anti-abortion. The Obama era may be pushing the country leftward on some fronts, but recent polling suggests that America's slim pro-choice majority is even slimmer than usual these days.
But if the ranks of pro-lifers are growing, so is pro-life weariness - over the long wait to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and over the prospect of being lashed to the mast of a sinking Republican Party. Hence Obama's surprising gains, last fall, among traditionalist Catholics and younger evangelicals. And hence the current Obama outreach effort.
Nothing that emerges from this White House is going to look like a genuine legal compromise - which would require the rollback of Roe's near-absolute guarantee of abortion rights, and a move, at the very least, toward the restrictions on second-trimester abortions that roughly two-thirds of American support.
But if Obama's abortion-reduction proposals owe more to Democrats For Life than to Planned Parenthood, there are abortion opponents who will seize even that thin straw as a sign of progress. And the Democratic Party will have a chance to peel off more votes from one of conservatism's crucial constituencies.
That wouldn't mean the end of the culture wars. But where Obama's re-election efforts are concerned, it might be close enough for government work.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for
The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th. Avenue, New York, 10018.
© 2009 New York Times News Service