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.
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.