It would have been easier for Barack Obama to wait until after the election to announce that he thinks gays should have the right to marry. He could have let people assume that V.P. Joe Biden’s and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s comments to that effect were a hint that such was the thinking inside the Administration. When Obama was running for the Illinois State Senate in 1996, a candidate questionnaire said he supported gay marriage. His people now say that the questionnaire was filled out by someone else. Jeez.
Back to now. President Obama didn’t have to jeopardize his standing in his 2012 reelection bid, especially in the swing states. My conversations with some gays after Biden’s Sunday comment suggest that they understood the difficulties the issue presents him electorally and, while disappointed in Obama’s slowness on the issue, they still wanted to ensure his reelection. They are thrilled, of course, though nervous about the political fallout.
Much is at stake here. Evangelicals and other Christian conservatives were never going to vote for him, so there’s nothing lost there. Obama’s “evolved” position is, however, at odds with the views of many African-Americans, but it’s hardly likely that they will abandon him in the election. The question there is: will they show up at the polls? Hispanics have been overwhelmingly for Obama, with Republicans trying to figure out a way to tap their increasingly significant slice of the electorate. This may help the GOP somewhat, but Hispanic voters remain more affected by the candidates’ positions on immigration than their views on gay marriage.
Polls put people’s support for gays’ right to marry at around 52 percent, while older people are far more opposed and younger people favor it by a two-to-one margin. Older people can be depended upon to vote, not so much the younger voters. Will this now energize them to get engaged, as they were four years ago?
What we won’t know until November is how middle-of-the-roaders in swing states will be affected by this announcement, coming six months before the election. My guess is that the main debate will continue to be about jobs and the economy and a range of budget decisions, including changes in Medicare and the health system.
I was puzzled about why Obama, if he views this as a civil rights issue, wouldn’t support action at the federal level. I asked Barney Frank, who replied that marriage has traditionally been a matter reserved for the states, except when the Supreme Court intervenes, as it did with interracial marriage. The only Congressional intervention has been a negative, the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), which Bill Clinton signed into law. The GOP 2012 platform seeks to have DoMA enshrined as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In dramatic contrast, Obama directed the Justice Department not to enforce DoMA, which he deems unconstitutional. He also did away with“don’t ask, don’t tell” and now is the first President to support gay marriage. He gets credit for taking a political risk and standing up for a principle. That much is clear. By November, given the emphasis on the economy, it may not matter one way or the other.
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