Despite all this, however, the political case for Obama doing what he did is far from open and shut. Among key segments of the old New Deal coalition, support for gay marriage is far less robust than it is among the ascendant elements: Just 40 percent of non-college-educated white men, 43 percent of non-college-educated white women, and 32 percent of white seniors are in favor, according to Pew. More worrying for the Obamans is the potential downside with the third key element of the president’s new-style coalition: blacks and Hispanics. Just 40 percent of non-white men are supportive of gay marriage, and the possibility that Obama’s move could depress minority turnout is one that his people take seriously—but one they believe, in the end, they can avoid with a strong ground game.
Less easily averted are the risks in a handful of pivotal swing states heavily populated by blue-collar whites: Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In those places, Obama’s ability to hold down his margin of defeat with that cohort—among whom he performed better in 2008 than John Kerry did in 2004—will be critical to victory. Obama’s advisers comfort themselves with the thought that precious few voters for whom gay marriage might prove decisive would be open to pulling the lever for their guy anyway. Which is fair enough. But in, say, North Carolina, which Obama carried by just 14,000 votes and which last week approved an anti-gay marriage ballot measure by a whopping 60-40 margin, the peeling away of just a tiny slice of the electorate could flip the state to Romney.
How the costs and benefits of Obama’s decision ultimately tally up will depend to a great extent on whether Romney and the right leave the issue alone or attempt to exploit it full-bore. So far the Republican nominee, whose campaign correctly sees any day spent not talking about the economy as a day wasted politically, has shown little inclination to push gay marriage front and center. If Romney sticks to that course, chances are the issue will fade into the background. But if the right seizes on it and Romney is dragged into the fray (as he was on social issues during the GOP nomination fight), that could change. Obama’s people say they would welcome the fight, given how far outside the mainstream Romney’s positions are on gay rights broadly; it would give the president yet another chance to paint him as a figure of the past and Obama as an avatar of modernity.
And that assessment may be spot on. But if gay marriage becomes a battle royale this fall—and even if it doesn’t—the consequences of Obama’s decision for the cause may be more complicated. While support for gay marriage has advanced with striking speed, it has also, as Ross Douthat pointed out recently on nytimes.com, suffered “temporary backlashes,” ebbing and flowing even as the trend line has moved inexorably upward. And it’s certainly worth noting that in each of the 32 states where gay marriage has been put to referendum, it has failed.
Now imagine that the same thing happens to some or all of the pro-gay-marriage initiatives on the ballot in four blue states (Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington) this fall. Imagine that Obama loses some or all of the swing states listed above—and that, in the extreme case, it costs him the election. Fairly or not, there will be an enormous amount of hand-wringing over whether his decision played a part. And that in turn will create short-term disincentives to other elected officials following in his path.
You might say that’s a lot of imagining, and you’d be right. But those were precisely the kind of scenarios that Obama was compelled to contemplate as he weighed his decision about whether to articulate his position on gay marriage before Election Day. “All along as he thought about this, the president had a keen understanding that timing is an essential element of presidential leadership,” says a former senior White House official, citing the way that Franklin Roosevelt hid his true intentions on committing American forces to the war in Europe until public opinion was primed to accept it. “The question isn’t just whether to put your thumb on the scale. The question is when it will do the most to advance the cause—and not inadvertently set it back.”
After much agonizing, Obama reached the conclusion that the time was soon—long before Biden’s flapping gums turned soon into now. For the sake of gay couples across the land and everyone else who pines for the day when same-sex marriage is as uncontroversial as flag pins, huckleberry pie, and Modern Family, here’s hoping they were right.