Writer / Journalist / Teacher

Words matter: President Obama remembers the power of the (bully) pulpit

There was the Fox News headline last week that had it all wrong, declaring that President Obama had flip-flopped and declared war on marriage. Well alright, only half wrong. But same-sex marriage supporters could only wish the second part of the headline had been accurate, because in fact the president's big announcement was all talk.

That's exactly what has made its undeniable power so remarkable.

The interview contained no call for change at the legislative level, where advocates who agree with the president have been fighting for marriage rights recently in New Jersey and Colorado. There was no vocal support for the legal challenges to laws prohibiting gay marriage, an array of struggles I have chronicled extensively for TIME over the past several years. And as for the vote the day before in North Carolina, where voters overwhelmingly made gay marriage -- and civil unions, too -- unconstitutional, the president went out of his way to say that was okay by him.

But for all that, Tuesday's announcement was extraordinary -- no matter where you stand on gay marriage. He took sides on a pressing moral issue, and in doing so with the kind of clarity displayed in his interview last week, he reminded everyone -- probably himself included -- just how powerful the bully pulpit he has at his disposal really is.

The power of the pulpit is a funny thing in the hands of our presidents. Use it too often, and it vanishes -- a lesson Obama seemed to be learning last year during the debt crisis, when the more he talked the less Congress seemed to listen. Some presidents rarely use it all, or when they do its more of a club to hammer opposition to their well-settled positions. President Carter lectured America on economy and about the evils of politics. Reagan found his moral voice in supporting libertarianism and in casting the Russian Empire as evil.

The point, of course, isn't whether Carter or Reagan was the more moral president, or the wiser one. But the bully pulpit works best when it is used to frame a debate in this country. And that's what Obama did with his gay marriage position. Instantly, he delegitimized a position that was until that day the near universal stance of Democratic elected officials at the federal level. Beginning now, no federal office-seeker or elected official can safely thread the needle on gay rights -- saying, as Obama did and all his predecessors before him -- "Gay rights are fine, gays are fine, but gay marriage? Not gonna go there."

Obame went there, and even if he loses in November it's going to be hard for progressive-leaning politicians to avoid doing the same in the future.

Overnight, a mere statement of principles changed the debate, and the politics, of gay marriage. Only a president has that power, and Obama's experience last week ought to be a reminder of that to both his staff and his foes -- and to himself, should he find himself in office come January 21.