Obama backs gay marriage: What difference will that make?

President Obama was already doing virtually all he could to advance gay rights politically. But by openly supporting gay marriage, he could be a potent force to broaden cultural acceptance. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama is seen on a monitor in the White House briefing room in Washington Wednesday. Obama told an ABC interviewer that he supports gay marriage.

Same-sex marriage advocates are understandably elated and opponents are unsurprisingly disappointed about President Obama’s statement Wednesday that he supports gay marriage. But the question remains: What difference does it make?

Mr. Obama’s policies have consistently favored the expansion of gay rights, pushing for the termination of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and deciding to stop legal defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – which defines a marriage as being between one man and one woman.

But, for now, DOMA remains the law of the land, meaning Obama can’t do too much more than he has already done to advance gay marriage. What his comments Wednesday can do, however, is add the power of the president’s bully pulpit to a debate that is already shifting toward broader cultural acceptance. And that is no small thing, advocates and analysts say.

“There are no immediate tangible effects of his decision but there are certainly tremendously important symbolic effects,” says Michael Cole-Schwartz, director of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading advocate for gay marriage. “The president had already opposed the Defense of Marriage Act and state bans on marriage. What this does is send a great message that will hopefully spur more people to continue on the evolutionary journey that the president described.”

In an election year, the cultural push and pull over gay marriage is likely to be seen most obviously through the lens of politics. The result of Obama’s new stance, which he explained in an interview with ABC, will almost certainly be to galvanize both sides of the issue.

“Both anti- and pro-gay marriage forces will now play as many political cards with it as possible since it is an election year,” says Len Shyles, a professor of communication at Villanova University in Philadelphia

For his part, the president will now have the gay community unequivocally on his side. Previously, it had supported Obama but chided him for not supporting gay marriage openly.

“The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, who were already largely behind the president's reelection efforts, are now likely to be not only engaged, but also enthusiastic supporters,” says Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency." “This means they will do much more than simply vote. They'll raise money, contribute, and volunteer.” 

Obama’s stand could also influence in ways not yet clear four ballot initiatives on gay marriage this November – in Maine, Minnesota, Washington State, and Maryland. On Tuesday, North Carolina voted to ban gay marriage and civil unions.

“Whereas we can all wonder what would have happened had Obama made his announcement before yesterday’s vote in North Carolina, there will be no reason to wonder this fall,” says Stuart Gaffney, media director for Marriage Equality USA.

In the end, Obama’s shift might not signal any change in policies, but rather simply show that he was increasingly boxed in by the course of his own presidency, says Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at Family Research Council, which opposes same-sex marriage.

“None of his policies were consistent with supporting marriage as one man and one woman to begin with,” he says. “This is just evidence of a politician responding to pressure from within himself and his allies that there was an intolerable inconsistency between his expressed view and his public policies that couldn’t be maintained any longer.”

Yet the deeper flow toward cultural acceptance of gay marriage could give Obama’s position as the first president to back gay marriage a deeper resonance, say others. An average of nine polls taken in the past year show that 50 percent of American adults support gay marriage while 45 percent oppose it – with the trend lines showing increasing support, according to PollingReport.com.

“Perhaps the president's evolving thinking is indicative of where we are as a nation,” says Gordon Coonfield, also a professor of communication at Villanova, via e-mail. “The nature and composition of what the majority of people know and experience as family has shifted dramatically in recent decades…. Perhaps the president's openness will lead to a cultural tipping point on this issue, and we can begin seriously reassessing what family is and how we as a society want to define, support, and value that institution.”

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