West Wing Briefing

Delay on gay marriage in Calif. gives Democrats room to focus on midterms

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By Michael D. Shear
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; 11:22 AM

In this difficult summer for President Obama, not a lot has gone right, politically. But this week, for once, the White House caught a break and can breathe a sigh of relief.

Even as controversy swirled about the president's comments on the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, another potential election-season headache was all but erased.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided Monday to delay same-sex marriages in California until at least December.

Gay men and lesbians will not be lining up -- as they had very much wanted to -- in city halls across the state to marry. Instead, the court said they would have to wait until it could take up the legal debate over California's Proposition 8.

That decision came as a huge disappointment to the activists who sought to have Prop 8 declared unconstitutional. But it was a relief for the White House, meaning that a potentially divisive issue would not play out during the fall midterm elections.

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is close with top White House officials, said Obama has "suffered through a season of distractions. He didn't need one more distraction."

Garin said same-sex marriage is not that much of a loser for the president, who has long straddled the issue: He opposes gay marriage but has said Prop 8 was not constitutional. He strongly supports civil unions.

But Garin said the specter of 24-7 cable news chatter about gay marriage -- it is August, after all -- would have diverted the president once again from trying to show that Democrats are trying to do something about the economy.

"The country is riveted on the need to fix the economy and fix Washington. The president needs a clear lane to focus on that substantively and, more importantly, to communicate with the public on those two issues," Garin said. "He simply doesn't need any more hurdles in the lane."

Those opposing Proposition 8 in court said in a statement that they are pleased the appellate bench will hear the matter in December.

"As Chief Judge [Vaughn R.] Walker found, Proposition 8 harms gay and lesbian citizens each day it remains on the books. We look forward to moving to the next stage of this case," said lawyer Theodore B. Olson, referring to the trial judge who found the measure unconstitutional earlier this month.

Todd Harris, a Republican consultant who has extensive experience in California politics, said the ruling by the court represented "the classic dodging of a bullet" for Obama.

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