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Race and Beyond: President Obama Can Come Out on Gay Marriage

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 29, 2012.

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President Barack Obama has arguably done more than any other president for the gay community. He was proactive on repealing prohibitions on gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed forces, and last year his administration announced it wouldn’t defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law banning the recognition of same-sex marriages. These actions make his reluctance to lead on marriage equality and an executive order on workplace protections for gay and transgender Americans all the more frustrating for activists. Pollsters think he’s worried what voters will think if he comes out fully in support of marriage equality, but it’s questionable whether this would really hurt his re-election chances.

Marriage equality reappeared last weekend (did it ever go away?) after Vice President Joe Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he supported gay marriage. “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual—men and women marrying—are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” he said.

Vice President Biden’s comments were followed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan stating on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he supported gay marriage.

Yet another political backdrop to all this palaver over gay marriage is today’s (Tuesday’s) ballot initiative in North Carolina that could ban gay marriage in the Tar Heel state. President Obama opposes the initiative, arguing it’s unfair to enact state constitutional provisions that enshrine discrimination into law. Still, the president has avoided offering a full-throated support of gay marriage.

Would it threaten President Obama’s re-election if he did so? Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza seems to think so. Offering the craziest presidential theory since the dawn of the birther movement, Cillizza speculates in his “The Fix” blog that the president is reluctant to side with gay marriage advocates, fearing black voters will shun him if he does.

To reach this absurd conclusion, Cillizza points to polls that suggest increasing support for gay marriage among affluent and well-educated white voters, independent voters, and voters between the ages of 40–49. Yet, he argues, the administration is quaking from supporting gay marriage because polls show a majority of African American voters disapprove.

“Viewed through that lens, coming out in support of gay marriage looks like an unnecessary political risk for Obama,” Cillizza concludes with illogical certainty. “Yes, it would clearly thrill a portion of his base (gays and lesbians) but it could alienate—at least in parts—another portion of his base (African Americans) that he desperately need to win reelection this fall.”

Cillizza has the polling data correct, but his analysis is way off base. My colleague Ruy Teixeira, who studies polling and demographic trends for the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation, offered a more plausible theory for President Obama’s reticence on gay marriage.

“I think it’s more likely because of white, working-class voters, who tend to be pretty unenthusiastic on the issue as well,” Teixeira told me. “He’s already in enough trouble with these voters for them to be hesitant about further annoying them by changing his stance on gay marriage.”

Oddly, Cillizza argues that President Obama doesn’t stand to lose support among gay and lesbian voters, no matter what his public stand might be. “It’s hard to see the LGBT community abandoning Obama—either for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or to simply sit on the sidelines—given that the President can point to the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the decision to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act as signs that he is working to address their concerns,” he writes.

Yet Cillizza fails to mention working-class whites’ opposition to marriage equality and seems to believe black voters would waver in their support of President Obama. Such an argument is utter nonsense, as even the most conservative, church-going black voters have other issues on their collective minds than punishing the president for what he says or doesn’t say about gay marriage.

Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect makes this clear, writing recently that African Americans are most concerned with jobs, health care, and economic growth.

“When you couple this with extremely high support for President Obama—and also, the fact that black people hold different opinion on different things—it’s no real surprise that African Americans, as a class, are less interested in whether gay people can marry or serve openly in the military,” Bouie writes.

Or as another of my colleagues Aisha Moodie-Mills, an advisor for CAP’s LGBT Progress team, says, “It’s really quite ridiculous to believe that black folks would stay home and not vote for the first black president over gay marriage. It’s just ludicrous! No megachurch pastor, as bigoted as he may be, has the power to persuade a whole congregation of black folks to turn against this president.”

Indeed, an earlier Washington Post article suggests just that. Black voters may not have much enthusiasm for marriage equality but President Obama’s views on the subject don’t shake African American support for him. “The president has overwhelming support from the black church because people are looking at the bigger picture,” civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery told The Post last year. “He will not be hurt by one issue.”

But that’s not the real game afoot. The noxious idea that gay marriage will be President Obama’s kryptonite is part of the conservative mischief-making machine, a divide-and-conquer gambit to pit the diverse interests of progressives against one another. In this case the conservative strategy is to drive a wedge between African American voters and gay and lesbian voters, making it appear that the president must choose between favoring one group and offending the other.

Phil Reese reports in The Washington Blade that documents from the antigay National Organization for Marriage were recently leaked, giving us insight into their underhanded tactics:

The strategic goal … is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African-American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots.

But it won’t work. Black voters will be enthusiastic and fully supportive of the president. Gay and lesbian voters, too. Why am I so sure? Well, it’s the nature of politics. At some points along the way, even the most favored politician will make decisions or behave in ways that even ardent supporters dislike. In this case I’d prefer to hear President Obama be as clear and affirmative on gay marriage as others in his cabinet have. In time, I believe he will.

But right now, in the heat of a re-election campaign, rational and progressive voters understand what’s going on—and what’s at stake. There’s really no choice. Staying away from the polls or siding with the hateful alternative is a deal with the devil.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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