Observers everywhere are waiting for President Obama to come out in support of gay marriage.
For them, it seems to be only a matter of when, not if. But just how long they wait is a guessing game.
While Obama remains opposed to gay marriage, the White House line in recent months has been that the president’s position is “evolving.” To the political observer, that’s code for: ‘Don’t worry, he’ll get there soon enough.’
But Obama is not there yet.
At his press conference Wednesday, Obama delivered another characteristically careful message on the issue, praising New York’s passage of a gay marriage bill, but stopping short of endorsing gay marriage.
And he flat out refused to change his position in front of reporters.
"I'm not going to make news on that today. Good try though."
But Obama did say that he thinks the country is seeing “a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers and sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they’ve got to be treated like every other American.”
“And I think that principle will win out,” Obama predicted. “I think we’re moving in a direction of greater equality, and I think that’s a good thing.”
On the surface, now would seem to be a good time for the president to make the transition. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has earned plaudits for shepherding a gay marriage bill through a Republican-majority state Senate, making the Empire State the biggest state in the country to allow gays and lesbians to marry. The bill garnered the support of four Republican state senators – a heretofore unheard-of show of bipartisan support in a state legislature.
Meanwhile, polling shows gay marriage continuing to pick up steam with the American electorate. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in March showed support for gay marriage rising quickly (relatively speaking) from 36 percent five years ago to 53 percent this year – the first time a majority has supported it. Gallup and CNN have found similar trends.
The latest Post-ABC News poll also showed that independents favor gay marriage by a 58-percent-to-39 percent clip, which means Obama would even be doing something popular among that all-important group.
“There’s momentum now as a result of New York’s actions,” said Democratic consultant Fred Yang. “I think this further solidifies his base, and I think he wants to be focused fully on the economy in 2012.”
But when given the chance at Wednesday’s press conference to jump on board with gay-marriage advocates, Obama again took a pass.
But despite the changing mood of the country, Obama’s stance could still be a politically savvy one.
Even though now seems like a good time, Obama has long cast his stance on the issue as a personal not a political journey. Embracing gay marriage just as it becomes politically popular risks looking like he’s got his finger in the wind, and Obama has always been resistant to even the appearance of political expediency.
There’s also the matter of the campaign next year.
While embracing gay marriage is, for the first time, broadly popular, becoming an open advocate for it is not as easy a call as it seems. While an increasing number of people support gay marriage, the opposition is still very motivated.
Democrats saw in 2010 what happens when the right is motivated, and unless Obama feels strongly that he needs to come out in favor of gay marriage, it’s probably best not to risk inflaming his opponents.
What’s more, Obama risks losing the support of at least some of his base by embracing gay marriage. The black and Latino communities remain steadfastly anti-gay marriage, and high turnout among both of those populations was a big reason Obama did so well in 2008.
Look at California in 2008. Even as Democrats experienced a big wave in their favor and Obama won by a large margin, California voters – some of the most socially liberal in the country – voted for Proposition 8, overturning the state’s gay marriage law.
Exit polling showed seven in 10 African-American voters and 53 percent of Latinos voted for Proposition 8, despite large majorities also supporting Obama. (Update:Later data suggested the African-American number was lower than that.)
Even as gay marriage has gotten significanly more popular in the intervening years, it remains a risky proposition (no pun intended) with black and Latino voters, and Obama needs them in 2012.
Now, could it be that those voters would still vote for Obama’s 2012 reelection if he embraces gay marriage? Of course. But both voting blocs could also simply stay home, as they have in other recent elections.
Gay marriage, despite what happened in New York, is hardly front-of-mind for Americans who are still focused on the economy. If Obama were to come out in favor of gay marriage, he risks looking like he’s taking his eye off the ball and starting a new social crusade.
For Obama, the risks of becoming the nation’s most prominent gay marriage advocate may very well outweigh the benefits. Even now.
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