Next Thursday, June 23, Barack Obama will be in New York for a high-priced fund-raiser for LGBT leaders. Tickets start at $1,250 each and go up to $35,800, a pretty steep cost for a community whose signature issue at the moment is marriage equality — something Obama doesn’t yet support. It’d be an awkward ask at any moment, but this will be especially dicey: By next week, New York’s legislature may well have passed a historic same-sex-marriage law.
In the next few days, Obama will almost certainly be asked about his famously “evolving” stance on marriage rights for gay men and women. New York would be the sixth state in the nation to allow same-sex nuptials and by far the largest. New York City is also a gay rights hub, which is no doubt why he chose it for this fund-raiser. It would be an excellent chance for him to announce that he has “evolved” all the way to marriage equality. But would he ever do that?
It’s not unthinkable. If he doesn’t announce his support of marriage equality, Republicans could use New York’s law to bash him anyway. Master strategist Karl Rove used the 2003 Massachusetts court decision that legalized same-sex marriage as a galvanizing force to drive conservatives to the polls in the 2004 presidential election, even though opponent John Kerry wasn’t actually in favor of it. It’s questionable how well this tactic actually worked when it came to election results, but there’s no doubt that the rhetoric and the scare value of a lurking “homosexual agenda” steered voters away from the issue for a while.
Since the various GOP candidates will probably try to use marriage equality as a weapon, Obama’s team might be considering that it could actually be an asset. Polls now show that a majority of Americans support the rights of gays to marry. And with the exception of 2003 and 2004, the approval numbers have been on an upward trend since the eighties. That’s only going to continue; now 68 percent of Americans under 30 are in favor, and 65 percent of those who are in their thirties. This is Obama’s core demographic. Notably, while far-right contenders like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are aggressively against marriage equality, most of the candidates at this week’s GOP debate didn’t seem to want to get into it. And it has never been a core tea party issue.
Supporting gay marriage would give Obama serious progressive cred at a time when his accomplishments in passing the Affordable Care Act and repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” aren’t carrying much weight. And it would be a seriously bold, historic thing to do. (Not to mention it would tap into a wellspring of gay donor money, which is why he’ll be in New York next week in the first place.) No doubt his campaign has been doing polling on the issue in battleground states, and maybe, just maybe, what they’re hearing has shown them a window of opportunity.
It seems like a real long shot that Obama will make a surprise announcement on marriage equality. But the alternative can’t be that appealing, either. Next week he will have to face a crowd either jubilant over a massive victory or stinging from a heartbreaking defeat. Either way, telling them that he doesn’t support their signature issue isn’t going to go over very well.