Obama Gay Marriage Stance a Nod to 2012 Battlegrounds

President Obama believes gay marriage is "a matter that states should decide."

June 28, 2011, 12:06 PM

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2011— -- President Obama commemorates gay pride month at the White House this evening, welcoming some of his gay and lesbian supporters and renewing his commitment to helping them "win the future."

But don't expect the president to use the occasion to flash his rainbow stripes in support of marriage equality.

"I'm not going to make news on that today," Obama said when pressed on his personal views of same-sex marriage during a midday press conference.

The president, who has opposed the unions, told reporters that while New York becoming the six, and largest, state to allow same-sex marriage last week was a "good thing," he believes the issue should be left up to the states.

"I think it's important for us to work through these issues because each community is going to be different, each state is going to be different," he said.

The position -- a new twist for Obama, who appeared to support legalizing the unions in 1996, later opposed them, and recently said his views are "evolving" -- has rankled advocates who say the president is making a calculated political decision with an eye toward 2012.

"The president has staked out a cynical political position aimed at not rocking the boat," said Richard Socarides, who advised President Bill Clinton on gay rights issues. "This states' rights argument is a separate but equal argument. Would the president have thought it right to let the states decide on the issue of interracial marriage, or on whether or not women should be allowed to vote?"

Obama's reluctance to embrace gay marriage, putting him among a minority of Americans in national polls, appears part of a broader effort to avoid alienating voters in battleground states, like Ohio and Nevada, where majorities have traditionally shown less support for the unions than voters overall.

States such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia, all won by Obama in 2008 and expected to be close contests in 2012, have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage that couldn't be overcome by a president's leadership alone.

New Hampshire legislators are expected to vote early next year on whether to repeal the state's same-sex marriage law, while in Minnesota, another battleground, a constitutional amendment banning the unions will appear on the ballot in 2012.

"If Obama were to come out for marriage equality today, nothing could happen tomorrow," said one Democratic strategist close to the administration who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The Defense of Marriage Act still needs to be repealed, and that won't happen soon with a Republican-controlled House in place."

Same-sex marriage also remains comparatively less popular among Hispanic and African-American voters than their White counterparts, a fact which could weigh on Obama's effort to court those constituencies. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found 59 percent of blacks and 47 percent of Hispanics oppose legalizing gay marriage.

Bottom line, some gay rights advocates speculate, Obama likely believes he has more to lose than gain in coming out in favor of same-sex marriage.

The president has already won the backing of many gay and lesbian donors who have given millions to his campaign. The nation's largest gay and lesbian rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, was among the first to formally endorse Obama for re-election. And, aides say, gay and lesbian Americans are unlikely to find as progressive a president from across the political aisle.

"I would not begrudge a single person who feels strongly about this for being upset with the president about it," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said earlier this month of Obama's position on marriage. "'But what I can promise you is, if someone else is president, all the other things I talked about [benefits for gays and lesbians] are all going to go away."

Obama Not Alone in Grappling With Same-Sex Marriage

Some activists even go so far as to say that the president's reticence on marriage equality is not a top concern, given the administration's advancement of LGBT rights during the first term and the chilly legal climate toward same-sex marriage that still exists in a majority of states.

"Part of the success we've had in the gay rights movement is meeting people where they're at and continuing the conversation and bringing them along," Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign said of Obama's "evolving" view of gay marriage. "A lot of fair-minded people in this country are still grappling with this issue."

More than half of Americans -- 53 percent -- say it should be legal for gays and lesbians to marry, according to the most recent ABC News-Washington Post poll. Seven years ago, 32 percent supported same-sex unions.

"The president's position on gay marriage is that he has been against it," Pfeiffer said. "But he has said that the country is evolving on this and he is evolving on this."

Obama told a crowd of gay donors at a fundraiser last week that he believes gay couples "deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country," but added that "traditionally marriage has been decided by the states."

"Slowly but surely we find the way forward," Obama said.

For some of Obama's most ardent supporters, his stance is frustrating and, at the very least, not helping to mobilize his liberal base.

"I think they are underestimating the cynicism in the community," said Cleve Jones, a leading gay rights activist. "They need to re-energize the progressive base -- including the gay part of it -- that was so excited back in 2008, and they're upset. I'm not seeing or feeling any kind of re-energizing going on."

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