To approach the question of principle in political leadership from yet another angle, in light of Biden’s quasi-endorsement of same-sex marriage there’s been a lot of speculation of what Obama “really” thinks about same-sex marriage. I suppose if I had to guess I would say the most likely possibility is that he “really” supports same-sex marriage and isn’t saying so for political reasons, if only because as a northern, generally socially liberal, affluent person with an advanced degree this would be the most common position. (One could also cite his explicit support for it when it was much more cutting-edge in 1996, but again it’s possible that since he wasn’t seeking national office at the time this position-taking was also done for political reasons.)
At any rate, nobody knows what Obama “really” thinks, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is what he’s done policy-wise. Directly on same-sex marriage, where he could affect policy — deciding whether to defend DOMA, making Supreme Court appointments — he’s done what could have reasonably been done. On the related issues of gay and lesbian rights he’s been good but not great; he deserves credit for supporting and contributing to the repeal of DADT, but he deserves criticism (and the resulting denial of funds) for refusing to issue an executive order banning workplace discrimination by federal contractors. I don’t care a great deal about whether Obama explicitly supports same-sex marriage or not because I don’t see any reason to believe that the BULLY PULPIT matters more with respect to same-sex marriage than it does for anything else, but either way he doesn’t get credit for secret feelings; what matters is whether he comes out in favor of SSM (whether motivated by sincere feelings, politics, or both.)
So, again, I don’t see much point in speculating about what Obama “really thinks.” It’s unknowable, presidential goals and preferences can never be divorced from political considerations, and on the issue for better or worse he is what his record says he is.
…see also Hilton.