Education Secretary Arne Duncan endorses gay marriage. Is Obama cornered?

Now, both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary Duncan have spoken up for gay marriage, but Obama is holding back. That could be a political calculation, but gay activists are frustrated.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Mellon Auditorium in Washington in this file photo.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined the chorus Monday in support of gay marriage, following Vice President Joe Biden’s statement Sunday on “Meet the Press” that he is “comfortable” with same-sex marriage.  

When asked Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” if same-sex couples should be allowed to marry in the United States, Mr. Duncan said matter-of-factly, “Yes, I do.” He added that he didn’t think he’d ever been asked that question publicly.

President Obama has not voiced support for gay marriage, instead backing civil unions, though he has maintained for over a year that his views are “evolving.” Many Obama supporters assume that, in his heart, the president supports gay marriage, but is cautious about potential political risks, and therefore is waiting until after the fall election to openly change his view.  

But with two major surrogates expressing support in rapid succession, the walls appear to be closing in on the president. On Monday, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the former president and a co-chair of Mr. Obama's reelection campaign, boxed in the president further, saying that gay marriage should be a part of this year's Democratic Party platform.

Gay-rights activists called on the president to voice the support for same-sex marriage that they believe exists. 

“In supporting marriage equality, [Duncan] communicates to all students that they deserve an equal shot at the American dream of love, family, and equality,” Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said in a statement. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the president shares these values and that’s why it’s time for him to speak out in favor of marriage equality as well.”

On a conference call with reporters Monday, top Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod held to the view put forth by aides to Mr. Biden after his comment:  that the vice president’s statement was “entirely consistent with the president’s position,” and that couples who are married, be they gay or heterosexual, are entitled to the same rights and liberties.

Mr. Axelrod also noted that the Obama administration has stopped defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. And he put the gay marriage issue in the context of the presidential race against Mitt Romney.  

“There couldn’t be a starker contrast on this issue than with Governor Romney, who has funded efforts to roll back marriage laws in California and other places,” Axelrod said.

Still, the one-two punch of Biden’s and Duncan’s comments has aimed the spotlight fully on Obama’s resistance to a full endorsement of gay marriage. It’s possible, some analysts suggest, that Obama is genuinely uncomfortable with the concept. But there’s a wider assumption that he’s holding back for political reasons, even as more states legalize it and polls show steady growth in public support, now at a solid majority.

In all, seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage. The sticking point for Obama may be resistance in some battleground states, including North Carolina. On Tuesday, voters there face a ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage. Other key states, such as Virginia and Ohio, have significant populations of Christian conservatives, who could become energized by an Obama endorsement of gay marriage – especially given their tepid support for Romney.

It’s also possible that swing voters in battleground states could be a bit more conservative on social issues than voters in solidly Democratic states. Another concern could be minority voters. Obama likely has little to worry about with black voters, despite some resistance to gay marriage, especially among older African Americans. The Hispanic vote – a major battleground demographic in November – could be another cause for caution.

But on the plus side for Obama, open support for gay marriage would help energize his own base. Many in the gay community have grown frustrated with his resistance, especially as they have donated, and in some cases, held high-dollar fundraisers, to support his reelection. In Biden’s remarks on Sunday, the vice president spoke of attending a fundraiser at the home a gay couple in Los Angeles, and meeting their young children – and how he told the parents he wished “every American could see the look of love your kids had in their eyes for you guys.”

Biden’s statement on Sunday was striking, not only because it went beyond anything Obama had ever said, but because he is a generation older than the president. Polls show senior citizens are less comfortable with gay marriage than younger generations. Biden didn’t just state his support in a cursory way. He expounded.

“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” Biden said.

He added that it’s the president who sets policy. (The previous White House also featured a vice president, Dick Cheney, who supported gay marriage while the president did not.)

If Obama does decide to come out in support of gay marriage before November, he should do it soon, says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“It certainly could energize Christian conservatives to the extent that they are still a little bit depressed over Romney’s nomination,” Mr. Jillson says. “But my sense is that they are more concerned with beating Obama. Support for gay marriage won’t be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The back is already broken.”

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