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

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.

But Harris noted that, ideally, the White House shouldn't have to hope for a ruling from a court that is out of its control.

"You know that you are on the uncomfortable side of a political wave when the blessings you count have been reduced to the bad things that didn't happen," Harris said.

Election season isn't over yet and the president has demonstrated an uncanny ability to create national political debates where none existed before. So maybe Obama will make an offhand comment about gay marriage to a reporter.

The (vacation) expectation game

Last year, as Obama began his first Martha's Vineyard vacation, deputy press secretary Bill Burton made a classic beginner's mistake.

"I have specific instructions from the president for the press corps," Burton said on Air Force One as the president headed for the Massachusetts island.

"He wants you to relax and have a good time. Take some walks on the beaches. Nobody is looking to make any news, so he's hoping that you guys can enjoy Martha's Vineyard while we're there."

Big mistake. The moment that escaped his mouth, it virtually assured that the trip was consumed by news: first the president's decision to reappoint Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman, and then the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

(From firsthand experience, I can report that few "walks on the beaches" were to be had.)

So this time, Burton tried the other approach.

"I would, as the spokesman who's going to go on that trip, encourage anybody else who's going in the media to think that this is going to be the hardest that they will have ever have worked in their entire lives," he told the press corps Tuesday. "You'll probably be working every day, early till late, maybe really early in the morning till really late at night, and over the weekend as well. And you'll probably never see outside of your bed and breakfast where you'll be staying."

One reporter picked up on the strategy: "Reverse psychology."

"I'm just trying to set expectations appropriately. I know what I said before the last time we went to Martha's Vineyard, and it turned out a little bit differently," Burton said.

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