Gay marriage: Can Obama stay on tightrope until 2012 elections?

President Obama has increased gay rights without publicly endorsing gay marriage. Can his position on gay marriage continue 'evolving' throughout a tight campaign season?

Jason Reed / Reuters
President Obama participates at an LGBT election fundraiser with actress Whoopi Goldberg in New York City on Thursday, June 23. Obama publicly supports civil unions, not gay marriage, but spokesman Jay Carney says the president's position on gay marriage is 'evolving.'

For months, President Obama’s view on gay marriage has been “evolving,” to quote press secretary Jay Carney. The unspoken presumption is that Mr. Obama really does support full marriage equality for same-sex couples, but just can’t say it out loud. If he did, it would needlessly inflame social conservatives and potentially alienate swing voters, the thinking goes.

Can the president ride that position all the way to Election Day? Or at some point in the next 16 months, will he feel compelled to evolve to the next step, overt support for gay marriage?

“There’s only so long you can ride this pony,” says Ford O’Connell, chairman of the conservative Civic Forum PAC.

For now, Obama seems safe with the position he laid out Thursday night, at a major LGBT fundraiser in New York City for the Democrats and Obama's campaign.

“I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country,” the president said to applause, hinting at support for same-sex marriage, but not saying the words. The president’s official position is that he supports civil unions.

Obama also made clear he believes the democratic process at the state level is the way to effect change, as is happening in New York State, where the legislature was preparing to vote on same-sex marriage Friday.

The president was warmly received at the Thursday fundraiser, though an audience member interrupted him with shouts of “marriage.”

“I heard you guys,” Obama said. “Believe it or not, I anticipated that somebody might...,” he continued, the rest of thought incomplete or drowned out by laughter and applause.

Later on, in an acknowledgment that a game of sorts is going on around his own position on same-sex marriage, Obama urged advocates to keep fighting for equality.

“Day by day, it’s won by ordinary people who are striving and fighting and protesting for change, and who, yes, are keeping the pressure up, including pressure on me,” the president said.

After two and a half years in office, Obama has amassed a long record in support of gay rights. He has signed the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that banned open military service by gays and lesbians. His administration has stopped defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act in court. He signed hate crimes legislation aimed at protecting lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered (LGBT) people. His administration has adopted various measures recognizing rights of same-sex partners in areas such as hospital visitation and federal employment benefits.

The Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay-rights advocacy group in the country, announced in late May that it is endorsing Obama for reelection. “President Obama has improved the lives of LGBT Americans more than any president in history,” said HRC President Joe Solmonese.

But some activists are frustrated that Obama hasn’t moved more forcefully in coming out with full-fledged support for gay marriage – especially as the first African-American president, who speaks often of the courageous advocacy for civil rights in the 1960s.

Outside the Sheraton Hotel in New York Thursday night, dozens of protesters criticized the president for holding back on gay marriage. “We’re here not only for Obama, but for the donors who are going in there and spending upwards of $1,250 a plate: there’s more that the man needs to do,” Dan Fotou of Get Equal told Politico.

Still, political analysts say, moving too fast on gay marriage could jeopardize some of the president’s support on the margins, particularly among demographic groups that are less supportive of marriage equality than the country as a whole – seniors, blacks, and Hispanics. And in what could be a close 2012 election, Obama appears reluctant to take any chances.

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