Why gay marriage won't hurt Obama

Independent voters are more concerned about the economy.

The big news is that President Barack Obama is coming out in favor of gay marriage. The bigger news is that few people, not even the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, preoccupied as he is by more pressing material concerns, seem to care much.

It all started on Sunday when Vice President Joe Biden told NBC's Meet the Press that he was comfortable with "men marrying men [and] women marrying women" and that gay couples "are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties."

Then shortly afterward Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, was asked on a news show on MSNBC whether he supports same-sex marriage. He said yes and that he'd never been publicly asked that before.

It was awkward. Their boss's official position had been "evolving." Obama had previously supported civil unions, pushed for repeal of the Pentagon's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, and ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. But because this is an election year, Obama had been cagey about where he stands on gay marriage.

Until now. After three days of intense questioning by the White House press corps, Obama chose to announce his views not during a press briefing but during an interview with an ABC News reporter. Part of the interview was released last night but most of it will be aired on today's Good Morning America.

"In the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated," the president said.

Now the pundits are turning their attention to the politics of Obama's coming out. Will it hurt him with coveted independent voters? With African-Americans, who tend to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage?

The honest answer is no one knows. But the educated guess is probably not. Polls show independent voters are more concerned about the economy and other material concerns. Black voters, too, tend to vote with their pocketbooks, not on social issues. Indeed, social issues are less important this year than they were in 2004 when "Gays, Guns and God" superseded even the Iraq War. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, just 28 percent said they cared about gay marriage. Respondents were concerned instead with the economy (86 percent), jobs (84 percent), deficits (74 percent), and health care (74 percent).

Even Mitt Romney doesn't care. Well, he does, but not much. In an interview in Colorado, a reporter asked Romney about gay marriage, in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants and medical marijuana. He told the reporter that he opposes all of these, but then, when she challenged him, he pushed back:

"Aren't there issues of significance that you'd like to talk about: the economy, the growth of jobs, the need to put people back to work ... there are enormous challenges that we face," Romney said.

In 1996, when the US economy was the best it had been, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) sailed through Congress and was signed by Bill Clinton, a Democrat. It defined marriage as between a man and a woman. It therefore does not recognize the validity of gay marriage in the six states and District of Columbia that legalized it. Though some states are banning it (most recently North Carolina), resistance has waned. A new Gallup poll shows that half of Americans (52 percent) believe same-sex marriage should be legal. More importantly, for Obama's re-election chances: 57 percent of independents support legalization. Only 22 percent of Republicans do.

Some of those Republicans really, really want gay marriage to be a wedge issue, probably because Republicans do so poorly when bread-and-butter issues, like jobs and health care, are at stake. Brian Brown, of the National Organization for Marriage, said: "President Obama has now made the definition of marriage a defining issue in the presidential contest."

Maybe. Well, probably not. Actually, no.

Even Shepard Smith, a Fox News anchor, suggested the GOP would lose this one. He asked a reporter:

"I am curious whether you believe in this time of rising debt and medical issues and all the rest, if Republicans would go out on a limb and try to make this a campaign issue while sitting very firmly without much question on the wrong side of history."

New York City Clerks Offices opened its first Sunday for Gay Marriages, Photograph: Getty Images.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.