It was a “profile in courage” moment from the American president, but one loaded with political risk.
Consider the fact that just the previous day the citizens of North Carolina voted to ban same-sex marriage and all forms of civil unions by a 20-point margin, enshrining unequal treatment in their state constitution.
This has not been an unusual result when it has been put to the voters — more than 30 states have taken the same step, while in the half a dozen states where marriage equality is legal it has been achieved via state legislatures or judicial decision.
In other words, gay marriage might be morally right, especially in the eyes of the progressive base, but it is a proven loser at the ballot box. And the Obama campaign has bet big on winning North Carolina in November, deciding to hold the Democratic convention there in August.
The president won the state by a razor-thin 14,000 vote margin in 2008. It is an evangelical state in transition, containing both the Bible Belt and the research triangle of Duke University and the University of North Carolina, and given its resounding rejection of gay marriage, it just became an even more difficult prize for the Obama campaign to claim.
The same might be true for the crucial battleground states of Virginia, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In fact, of the 12 key states that will decide the winner of the 2012 election, 10 have rejected gay marriage in statewide elections.
The president’s self-described “evolution” on this controversial issue does parallel an evolution that has been occurring nationally. Support for gay marriage has risen from 27 per cent in the mid-90s to just over 50 per cent today. The gay civil rights movement has accelerated in the wake of the Aids epidemic and with the rise of popular openly gay celebrities such as the comedian Ellen DeGeneres. There has been a sea change in public opinion since the 1960s, but the nation remains deeply divided, and opponents tend to be more motivated than supporters when it comes to time to vote.
And while 60 per cent of Americans say that the issue of gay marriage will not affect their vote this year, according to a new Gallup poll, nearly a quarter of independent voters say the president’s position makes them less likely to vote for his re-election, while only 11 per cent say it will encourage them to back him. This does not suggest the policy will be a political success. The president even risks alienating a core element of his base — African-American churchgoers, who overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage on religious grounds.
The Obama campaign hopes that an outpouring of support and cash from liberals will compensate for the political risks. The activist class on the professional Left has long criticised the president for being too centrist in his approach to Congress — now it has solid evidence of his leadership on a controversial issue.
In the days since the president’s decision, his campaign has continued to enjoy a fundraising bonanza, including a record-setting $15?million (£9.3? million) fundraiser at his friend George Clooney’s house in Hollywood.
However, the Romney camp can sense the edge this unprecedented policy position creates for it in swing states. Elements of the evangelical community, which has been slow to warm to Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, might now be more inclined to rush to his defence. There will be associated Super PACs – supposedly independent campaign groups – to spread the message that Obama is dead-set on redefining the American family. It is a policy position his opponents can use as proof for the fantasy that he is a radical president.
But Team Romney also finds itself in a double-bind — because it does do not want to talk about social issues at this stage of the campaign. The Obama campaign has gone from calling Romney a flip-flopper on social issues to taking his own words from the primary that he is a “severe conservative”.
His camp would like to spend the campaign talking about the economy — the issue it believes can help its candidate win over centrist swing voters. Every day spent talking about social issues only compounds that negative “severe conservative” image.
President Obama’s best hope is that this moment of political courage is rewarded with revived respect for his leadership. Because moral leadership from the bully pulpit matters – it can help change hearts and minds. Liberal enthusiasm may be blind to the serious political risks this move might create. If the president loses the Southern and Midwestern swing states he won last time — possibly losing the White House in the process — this decision will be an important reason why.
But it recalls a moment recounted in the new volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power. After the assassination of John F Kennedy, the new president was warned by advisers not to pursue a civil rights agenda, arguing that it might be morally right but politically unwise in advance of the 1964 election. “Well, what the hell is the presidency for?” Johnson replied.
He won in a landslide.