Obama Can Stop "Evolving"

Yesterday, I wrote on Barack Obama “evolving” position on same-sex marriage, and pointed to a Gallup poll from last year that showed majority support for marriage equality. If Obama could count on public opinion in 2011—with 53 percent of Americans in favor of gay marriage—then there’s no question that he could do the same in 2012, and gain from announcing his support for marriage equality.

A new Gallup survey shows a slight reduction in support for same-sex marriage. 50 percent of Americans say that marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law as valid, compared to 48 percent who say otherwise:

The issue breaks along familiar lines; 65 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents say that same-sex marriage should be legal, compared to only 22 percent of Republicans—a decline of six points over last year. There’s also no surprise in the religious divide; only 38 percent of Protestants say that gay marriage should be legal, compared to 51 percent of Catholics and 88 percent of those who lack a religious identity. Likewise, the more often you attend religious services, the less likely you are to support same-sex marriage.

This makes sense when you consider the demographics of Protestants, Catholics, and the religiously non-affiliated. The “Protestant” category includes the groups most likely to oppose same-sex marriage overall, including older voters, conservative evangelicals, and African Americans. Catholics, by contrast, are a diverse group, and mostly analogous to the country writ large. As such, it’s no surprise to see that their numbers match national support for same-sex marriage. The religiously non-affiliated, by contrast, are more likely to be young and liberal, which by definition, implies overwhelming support for same-sex marriage.

The important thing for President Obama to realize is that his base—the supporters he needs to energize to win reelection—are largely among those who support same-sex marriage. African Americans are opposed, yes, but it’s also not a voting issue, as evidenced by the politicians—black and white—who support gay marriage and consistently win the large support of African American voters.

There’s two arguments circulating about why Obama shouldn’t support same-sex marriage, even his opposition is a political ploy. The first is that he might polarize the issue; the bully pulpit calcifies opposition more than it rallies support, and coming out for gay marriage might throw an obstacle in the effort to win hearts and minds. But this only works if support for same-sex marriage reaches across partisan lines. In the real world, it doesn’t; Americans are already polarized on marriage equality. At most, Obama would harden opposition and deepen support, and in a close election, that’s not a bad thing.

The other concern is that this is political risk for little in the way of substantive gain. Obama’s rhetoric won’t change the legislative environment or make Americans more tolerant. Why risk your political future when you can wait a few months and announce your support without the pressure of an election?

At time, there is political value in presidential courage. For the LGBT community, Obama’s support would be a huge symbolic victory and a tremendous mobilizer; it would inspire hope, heighten the stakes, and give many people a reason to work hard or harder for the president’s reelection. What’s more, as I said yesterday, it’s simply the right thing to do. To bend to intolerance is to give power to forces that want to deny respect and dignity to whole classes of people. Barack Obama is better than that, and he should show it.

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