With President Obama's sights set on his re-election, some decisions must be made about how the campaign can re-energize his base.
One segment, the gay community and their allies, has been frustrated with Obama and his "evolving" (at a snail's pace) stance on marriage equality. While the administration made good on its campaign promise on important issues such as the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell," failing to support full marriage rights for gay couples is still a sticking point.
Since the economy is the most important issue of this election cycle, wedge issues such as gay rights may take a backseat to jobs. But the public's view of marriage equality may not actually have the negative impact that the Obama administration fears. Public opinion on the issue is heavily in favor of equal rights for gay citizens and could give Obama the political cover necessary to come out publicly in support of marriage equality.
If President Obama expressed support for marriage equality before the 2012 elections, there would be both benefits and risks. He would surely excite some of his supporters, especially those who feel that he too often shies away from bold stances in favor of measured pragmatism and common ground. On the other hand, some voters who support Obama but still oppose marriage equality may abandon the president over this issue. That leaves the president with two choices: Endorse marriage equality now or wait and play it safe until he is re-elected.
There are recent signs that the administration's position is evolving. Just last month, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan came out in support of marriage equality. In an interview with Metro Weekly, Donovan said that he "absolutely" endorsed same-sex marriage.
Then there was the monumental speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which she stated emphatically that "gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights" — a line that surely got preapproval from the White House, which knew that such a speech would make headlines worldwide. It seems that President Obama's administration is signaling that his personal evolution just might be complete, but the question is, will he admit it before November?
There is a long-held belief that Obama is a closeted supporter of marriage equality. Legend has it that when running for the Illinois Senate in 1996, he filled out a survey for a local newspaper indicating his support for gay rights and marriage. In the survey, Obama's typed responses said, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."
But by 1998, Obama had a somewhat different take on the issue. In another questionnaire, he indicated "undecided" in response to a question about whether Illinois should legalize same-sex marriage. A peculiar change in position, but probably a politically calculated one.
By 2008, presidential candidate Obama had come out in support only of civil unions (pdf) and not marriage. Perhaps the environment in 2008 didn't allow Obama to announce his stance publicly, but maybe 2012 will be different. One of the earliest signs that Obama was rethinking the issue came in 2009 when the administration announced that it was no longer defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court, saying that it considered the law unconstitutional.
But one group is certainly a factor in the administration's decision about whether to support marriage equality: socially conservative African Americans. They may not jump for joy if President Obama grants equal marriage rights to gay couples. It is important to note, however, that polling immediately after the administration's shift on DOMA revealed that the decision didn't affect Obama's support from socially conservative blacks.
President Obama likes to quote Martin Luther King's famous observation "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." It appears that perhaps Obama, after a long evolutionary process, is finally ready to bend in the direction of equality and full marriage rights for all people.
Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst and staff writer for Loop21.com, where she writes about national politics, candidates and specific policy and culture issues. She writes frequently about domestic violence, sexual assault, victim blaming and gender inequality. Follow her on Twitter.