From the moment last June that Andrew Cuomo signed the bill legalizing gay marriage in New York, Barack Obama knew the ludicrous pretense that his views on the issue were “evolving” was living on borrowed time. Surely some reporter would ask soon enough if Obama would have signed the bill were he in Cuomo’s loafers. The president informed his senior advisers that the answer was yes (duh). And thus, the only question was whether to endorse gay marriage publicly before Election Day or try to stall until thereafter. After months of internal deliberations, Obama rendered his decision early this year. “He was clear,” a top White House official tells me. “He said, ‘If I get the question, I’m gonna have to answer it, and if I don’t, we gotta figure out the best way to do it [before November 6].’”
A plan was set for Obama to make history later this month or next—but then Joe Biden, as is his wont, huffed and puffed and blew the plan to pieces. After Biden blurted out that he was “comfortable” with gay marriage on Meet the Press, it was a no-brainer to advance Obama’s timetable with all due haste. To do otherwise would make him look weak, calculating, and coreless, precisely the attributes that Team Obama wants to hang like an anvil around the neck of his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.
In the aftermath of Obama’s interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, the punditocracy indulged in the predictable orgy of prognostication regarding the implications for his reelection prospects. (As will this column, because, hey, who doesn’t enjoy a good orgy?) The truth, however, is that no one—including the wizards advising Obama, who have access to more and better polling data than any White House in history—can say definitively what the net electoral effects will be. “It’s at the very least a political challenge–slash–unknown,” the same official tells me. “Those of us who get paid to divine these things can’t tell you with any certainty how this thing unfolds.”
But there is another set of political ramifications worth pondering here: the short-to-medium-term impact on the cause of same-sex marriage itself. Will Obama’s new stance hasten its solidification as a social, political, and legal norm? Or might it spark a backlash that delays an outcome that many, including me, regard as salutary and inevitable in the long run? This, too, is all but impossible to predict—but there can be no doubt that the question weighed heavily on Obama’s mind as he grappled with the issue over his first three-plus years in office. And that, in turn, helps explain why it took him so long to declare a belief that he has almost certainly held a great deal longer than he, even now, is willing to admit.
As Obama contemplated whether to uncloset his true convictions on gay marriage in this election year, his political advisers in Washington and Chicago were at once ambivalent and not of one mind. But a rough consensus eventually emerged that, in strictly political terms, the upsides narrowly outweighed the downsides. The bedrock for that conclusion is the astonishing rise in public support for same-sex marriage: from 32 percent in 2004 to 52 percent today, according to Washington Post–ABC News polling. Among Democrats, the figure is 65 percent, according to Gallup, and among independent voters, 57 percent.
The Obamans, to be sure, don’t place much weight on broad-gauge national polling. More compelling to them are the support levels for gay marriage among the key elements of the post–millenial coalition that put Obama in office in 2008 and on which his campaign will be relying even more heavily this time. Among two of the three pillars of that coalition, backing for gay marriage is sky-high: 65 percent among college-educated white women (with their male counterparts at 50) and 68 percent among whites under 30, according to the Pew Research Center. For many young voters, indeed, gay marriage stirs intense passions, hence creating an opportunity for Obama to rekindle the enthusiasm this cohort once felt for him—the diminishment of which is one of Chicago’s chief concerns.
Another, of course, is money. With Chicago terrified by the almost certain prospect of being outspent by the cumulative forces of the Romney campaign and its conservative Super-PAC allies, and with Wall Street having largely dried up as a source of largesse, the campaign has turned increasingly to three sources of big-donor dollars: Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the gay community. (Amazingly, reports the Washington Post, fully one in six of Obama’s bundlers reside in the last category.) From all three of those wellsprings, Obama’s embrace of marriage equality is likely to pay dividends—literally.