The chance that President Obama will finish “evolving” on the issue of gay marriage before November is about as slim as the winning margin that he or Mitt Romney can assume in this horse race.
Vice President Joe Biden rekindled the perennial debate over the president’s views on the subject when he said on Sunday that he was “absolutely comfortable’’ with same-sex marriage. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made similar remarks on Monday.
Pressed to explain the apparent discrepancies between the president's position and those of his Cabinet members, White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Monday that he had “no update on the president’s personal views.’’ Indeed, Obama’s groundbreaking record on gay rights and friendly public remarks suggest that he personally accepted same-sex marriage long ago. Although Obama described himself in December 2010 as “evolving,’’ it’s hard to see his unwillingness to declare his support for gay marriage as anything other than political expedience.
For evidence, look no further than North Carolina, poised on Tuesday to join the majority of states with constitutional bans on gay marriage. One of nine swing states where Obama’s reelection campaign began a major advertising campaign on Monday, North Carolina looms as one of the most challenging. Obama carried the state by less than 15,000 votes in 2008, and Democrats chose it to host this year's party’s nominating convention.
“He won here by such a narrow margin that almost anything could make the difference’’ said longtime Democratic strategist Gary Pearce, who is based in Raleigh. “I don’t blame him for being cautious. The country is also evolving, and he doesn’t want to get there too early.’’
In national polls, only a narrow majority of Americans support gay marriage. Many of the toss-up states that Obama needs to win a second term -- including Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin -- have passed laws or constitutional bans against same-sex marriage. In another battleground state, Iowa voters in 2010 ousted three Supreme Court justices who had legalized gay marriage the previous year.
A big reason the issue is tricky for Obama is that two of the constituencies that were pivotal to his 2008 victory – young voters and African-Americans -- are at odds. While gay-rights advocates frame marriage as a civil-rights issue, many churchgoing African-Americans approach it in a religious context. In North Carolina for example, an Elon University Poll in February found that only 35 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 support a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Among black voters, the percentage supporting the ban jumped to 46 percent.
The president’s campaign put out a statement in March saying he did not support the ballot measure, but he has not personally addressed it.
“It’s a gamble,’’ said Mileah Kroner, Elon University assistant professor of political science. “On one hand, him coming out for gay marriage could infuse the base and get young people excited, which could be in his favor. Then again, it could turn off older people, who he didn’t do particularly well with in the last election. Same with black voters, who tend to be evangelical. It’s a political calculation.’’
Obama’s hesitation on gay marriage creates crosscurrents in the gay community. His record, most notably lifting the ban against openly gay soldiers in the military, is solid. Saying that he backs same-sex marriage would be a symbolic victory, but it would not have any practical implications, because marriage rights are conferred by states.
“There is no doubt that this president has done more for us than any other president ... in the history of our country,’’ said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay-rights advocacy group. “We’ve largely been in the wilderness from a federal law and policy perspective, and this president, very courageously and astutely, has embraced us.’’
He added: “It is our job to continue pushing the president to make further advances for our community, but we also remember that we are a pushing a friend. ‘’
Just last month, the White House declined to issue an executive order that would ban federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Once again, Obama was testing the loyalty of the gay community, which has overwhelmingly supported him and is unlikely to flock to Romney, who backs a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Obama’s senior campaign adviser, David Axelrod, ducked questions on Monday about the apparent daylight between Biden and Obama on gay marriage, pivoting instead to, “There couldn’t be a starker contrast on this issue than with Governor Romney.'' That Axelrod chose to emphasize the differences with the presumptive Republican nominee instead of explaining the president's nuanced position was another tell-tale sign that the politics of gay marriage are at work.
Sophie Quinton contributed to this report.