Obama’s Gay Marriage Conundrum

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President Barack Obama attends a campaign event at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, May 5, 2012.

When Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressed support for gay marriage in recent days, their candor underlined the calculated approach their boss has taken on the topic. As a candidate, Barack Obama opposed gay marriage. As President, he has performed an awkward straddle. Obama is counting on gay supporters for their votes and their money in November’s election. At the same time, he is asking them for patience as he stakes out a hazy position on a moral issue fraught with political peril.

As supporters of marriage equality point out, public support for gay marriage is near an all-time high: last year, for the first time, a majority (53%) of Americans told Gallup they supported the concept, and New York became the largest state to legalize the practice. But the issue is a touchstone for Obama’s opponents as well. On Tuesday, North Carolina voters are expected to approve a constitutional ban of same-sex marriage and civil unions, illustrating the danger Obama faces if he embraces an issue that remains anathema to many voters in swing states he hopes to carry in November.

Officially, Obama’s position on marriage equality is “evolving”–a stock phrase intended to buy time until a hypothetical second term. By backing gay marriage, Obama would risk alienating a range of potential supporters — including older, rural populists and conservative black Christians — as well as motivating Evangelicals who remain unenthusiastic about Mitt Romney. As it stands, Obama has the support of same-sex marriage advocates even as his fuzziness frustrates them. Planting himself in the muddled middle may be an optimal political tactic.

As Obama’s advisers point out, the President has done more to promote equal rights for gays than any of his predecessors. He instructed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act. He backed the reversal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He has opposed discriminatory practices. “We wouldn’t be removing every federal barrier we can, on our own, to ensure gay and lesbian couples have the same rights and protections as other couples” if Obama did not support equal legal rights for gay couples, said Stephanie Cutter, the president’s deputy campaign manager, in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “There are significant accomplishments in this Administration to ensuring equality for everybody.”

True. But gays have done a lot for Obama as well. Reviewing Obama’s donor lists, the Washington Post notes that about one-in-six of Obama’s top campaign bundlers is gay. Same-sex marriage advocates, who are working to make their cause part of the Democratic party’s platform at this summer’s convention (in North Carolina), grasp that Obama is hemmed in by the looming election. But they also say the right moral stance happens to be smart politics. Young voters, including many of those whose enthusiasm for Obama has dimmed, overwhelmingly support gay marriage. In a new Gallup poll released today, 57% of independents say they support legalizing same-sex marriage. Some of the rumored contenders for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 also happen to be governors who backed same-sex marriage in their state — including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, with whom Obama appears today in Albany.

Even if Obama fully endorsed gay marriage, much of the impact would be symbolic. The President has no sway over North Carolina or the dozens of other states that have enacted prohibitions against same-sex marriage. To be sure, he has swing-state math to consider. And while Obama has consistently opposed discrimination against gays, advocates of marriage equality, who have done a lot for Obama, say the symbolism matters. “He needs to be with us,” Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, told me last year. “We’re not looking for him to wave a magic wand. But we look to Presidents for moral leadership.” Obama’s muddled position on gay marriage may be smart politics. But it is not audacious, and it is not the kind of change he claims to venerate.