Although most people assumed President Obama privately supported gay marriage, many were surprised he decided to say so publicly, especially now. But before the story gets rewritten, let's take a look at the chain of events in the recent history of the news cycle that led to Wednesday's announcement, which all trace back to one man: antigay Christian activist Bryan Fischer.
Sure, a lot of people have speculated and joked that Joe Biden was the one who pushed Obama to make a declaration of where he stood on gay marriage sooner than his reelection campaign may have liked. But he would never have been asked about the issue on Meet the Press if not for Fischer, who, you might recall, was the guy on Twitter who was so outraged that Mitt Romney hired a gay person to work on his campaign that his tweets got a lot of notice. But before we get to him, let's move backwards.
May 8 and 9: The reason Obama had to change his position was because his press secretary, Jay Carney, spent two days this week getting hammered by the press corps on the issue, and the "evolving" line was starting to look silly. Carney was asked more than 50 questions about gay marriage on Monday and Tuesday. At one point, when asked if the president's position was evolving, Carney replied, "It is as it was, yes." Meanwhile, gay donors said they were halting donations to Obama's super PAC.
May 7: The reason Carney's 50 versions of non-answer looked so silly was because on Meet the Press on Sunday, Biden gave a long and rambling answer on the question of gay marriage, eventually concluding: "I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying one other are entitled to the same exact rights." And the reason Biden had to answer a question on gay marriage was that Biden was attacking Romney for being too socially conservative. "They're going to need a better social policy than taking the social policy back to the '50s," Biden said just before he was asked about the issue.
May 1: The reason Biden was attacking Romney on social issues is that Democrats had been capitalizing on the resignation of a gay Romney staffer earlier that week. The Obama campaign's digital director, Teddy Goff, tweets, "Today we learned that in the year 2012, a Republican nominee for President can't have a gay person as spokesman." Obama super PAC head Bill Burton added, ""This is the kind of bigoted, antigay extremists a Romney administration would find itself held hostage to." The comments were picked up by BuzzFeed, ABC News, The Huffington Post, even foreign newspapers.
The reason Democrats had that window is that on May 1, Richard Grenell resigned as Romney's foreign-policy spokesman. The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin broke the story and reported that he left because he was not being defended by the Romney campaign after social conservatives began attacking the hiring of a gay person. Grenell "has resigned in the wake of a full-court press by antigay conservatives," she wrote. The story was picked up everywhere--The New York Times devoted two long stories to the incident--though some conservatives questioned whether Grenell would have really quit over the controversy surrounding his private life. The reason Grenell quit, The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan reported, was that he was left off a conference call on April 26 with foreign-policy reporters that he had set up. The campaign told him to "shut up" at the last minute, even though foreign policy was a major news story at that moment as the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death approached. The reason Grenell was told to lay low, Sullivan explained, was that the Romney campaign was waiting for the controversy over his sexuality to blow over.
April 27: The reason the controversy was still going was that it had been taken up by several more prominent conservatives, such as Family Research Council's Tony Perkins and the National Review's Matthew J. Franck.
April 23: The reason the Grenell hiring caught those guys' attention was that on April 23, Slate's Dave Weigel recapped a weekend Twitter fight between more-liberal tweeters and the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer and Media Research Center's Dan Gainor, who said that hiring a gay person was by definition a "move to the left."
April 20: The reason political bloggers had so much great material to work with was because Fischer condemned Grenell's hiring in the most-colorful language possible: "Romney picks out & loud gay as a spokesman. If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead." Noting the Secret Service hooker scandal in Colombia, Fischer wrote in a column, "Given the propensity for members of the homosexual community to engage in frequent and anonymous sexual encounters, the risk to national security of having a homosexual in a high-ranking position with access to secret information is obvious." He demanded that Romney take unpopular positions on gay rights, like calling for don't ask, don't tell" to return.
In the end, the contribution of Fischer to Obama's speech will--just like that butterfly whose wings set off a typhoon on the other side of the world--be forgotten by history. But it's worth noting that Fischer got just the exact opposite effect than what he wanted: Instead of moving the political environment backward on gay rights--ie, making it a scandal for a presidential campaign to employ any openly gay people--he moved it way forward. Nevertheless, he was basking in his accomplishment (or at least the media attention) on Wednesday: "Can you imagine Romney having to field questions about Grenell today? Or Grenell fielding questions about Romney?" he tweeted.