By Ben Geman and Bernie Becker - 09/06/12 10:00 AM EDT
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The White House and elected officials are offering highly visible support for gay marriage at the Democratic convention, electrifying activists and signaling that President Obama’s campaign views the position as a political winner.
The unprecedented backing was on display in prime time Tuesday when first lady Michelle Obama called for a nation in which “proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love.”
“I am absolutely blown away by the level of engagement. It is so much more than I expected,” said Fergus Tuohy, a delegate from Alabama, noting the support expressed for gay marriage by many of the convention speakers.
“It is a fundamental part of this platform; we hear it in every single speech, from every official. This is a pivotal moment in American history, and it is overwhelming to experience,” he said.
The Obama campaign’s show of support for gay marriage has extended to events beyond the convention hall.
Michelle Obama delivered remarks at a lunch held Wednesday by the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, while White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett made an appearance Tuesday before the LGBT Caucus.
Chuck Wolfe, the CEO of the Victory Fund, said the level of support for gay and lesbian rights — both at the convention and in recent policy decisions — is unprecedented.
“It’s direct. It’s no longer euphemisms. … It’s wonderful progress,” said Wolfe, whose group works to elect LGBT candidates.
The pronounced backing in Charlotte follows a number of victories for the gay community under President Obama, including the passage of legislation to repeal the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that had barred openly gay service members.
In May, Obama announced that he “personally” supports same-sex marriage, and the 2012 Democratic platform, adopted Tuesday, for the first time backs allowing gay couples to wed.
Julian Zelizer, a public affairs professor at Princeton University, said Democrats’ support for gay rights in Charlotte serves a political purpose.
“Democrats want to remind supporters of gay rights that they delivered. The administration took a big risk and now they don’t want that to be lost in the electorate,” he said in an email.
The embrace of same-sex marriage is not without political pitfalls, however, including in the African-American community, where some polling has found opposition to Obama’s position.
A large Pew Research Center poll released in late July showed that 40 percent of black voters favor gay marriage, while 51 percent oppose it.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Obama’s stance wouldn’t cost him many black votes.
“It will shave a few off the vote totals for the president, but not enough to hurt him,” Cleaver told The Hill.
Overall, the same Pew poll showed that 48 percent of voters now support same-sex marriage, while 44 percent oppose.
That’s a stark contrast from eight years ago, when Pew found that opponents outnumbered supporters by roughly two to one. Ballot initiatives on gay marriage in 2004 are believed by some to have helped drive voters for then-President George W. Bush to the polls.
Elected officials say Obama’s support for gay marriage helps his reelection bid, though they don’t believe politics were what motivated his change in position.
“That’s not why he is doing it, so I think it is a two-fer,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), an openly gay member of Congress.
“It is … a recognition that the anti [gay rights] vote is diminishing, and that it is not really terribly respectable anymore to be gay-bashing. It is both a recognition of reality and a promotion of that reality,” he told The Hill.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) addressed his support for gay marriage in personal terms, noting that his devoutly Catholic mother had told him she was behind it, too.
Exit polls showed that black and Hispanic voters helped pass an initiative to ban gay marriage in California in 2008, even as they turned out in droves for Obama. “I wouldn’t be surprised if my mom was one of them,” Becerra told The Hill. “But not anymore.”
Still, Becerra and other Democrats were reluctant to get into the political ramifications, even after their party thrust the topic onto center stage.
“I mentioned it because I think it’s consistent with our values in this country, and that government should not involve itself in the most private decisions of its citizens,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) said, referring to a speech he delivered to the convention on Tuesday.
Opposition to gay marriage is still strong in many parts of the country, however, and not all Democrats are convinced that the party’s marriage stance won’t be a liability.
“I don’t think so, but I don’t know,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who opposes gay marriage.