President Obama’s unexpected announcement on Wednesday that he supports gay marriage ignited his political base but risks a backlash with independent voters in swing states.
Supporters on the left were particularly fired up by Obama’s shift, but political observers pointed to Tuesday night’s vote in North Carolina, where voters overwhelmingly opted to define marriage as legal only between one man and one woman, as proof the decision could come back to haunt the president.
Obama’s statement doesn’t preface a change in policy for the administration, highlighting the administration’s cautious approach.
Senior administration officials said that Obama won’t push for federal legislation on gay marriage and that his acknowledgement on Wednesday won’t be the launch of some big campaign push.
They acknowledged that Vice President Biden’s remark on Sunday that he is “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage forced Obama’s hand on the issue, something the president even admitted in his interview with ABC on Wednesday.
But the officials insisted Obama had planned to announce his position before the convention in North Carolina this summer.
The announcement was welcomed by the gay community, but could be more important for Obama if it energizes young voters, a much larger demographic.
A Pew Research Center poll last year found 59 percent of Americans aged 18-30 support legalizing gay marriage.
Voters under 25 were a key constituency for Obama’s 2008 campaign, but Democrats have worried their enthusiasm for the president has waned. Becoming the first president in history to voice support for gay marriage could energize younger voters.
Obama acknowledged the possibility in his interview.
“You know, when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same-sex equality, or, you know, believe in equality, they are much more comfortable with it,” he said.
Martin Sweet, a political science professor at Northwestern University, said Obama’s support for the controversial wedge issue could “rile up folks on the other side.”
Shortly after Obama’s interview with ABC News on Wednesday, some Republicans vowed to do just that.
Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee acknowledged that while Obama ignited his supporters, he’s “going to rile up our folks too. Men and women who support traditional marriage.”
At the same time, other Republicans accused Obama of pandering to his base during an election year.
“While President Obama has played politics on this issue, the Republican Party and our presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, have been clear,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “We support maintaining marriage between one man and one woman and would oppose any attempts to change that.”
Democratic strategists say not acknowledging his position on gay marriage put Obama in an uncomfortable position.
“It was much better for him to take a stand,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Washington lobbyist who has worked for presidential campaigns. “A large group of people, including young people, will be energized that he stood up for what he believes in.
“It makes a broad statement about who he is and the leadership that he’ll provide,” Elmendorf added.
Sweet agreed with that sentiment but said the benefits aren’t significant.
“He may pick up a few independent voters who view this favorably,” he said. “But there’s not much more there.
“It puts to rest the lingering question about ‘Well, why isn’t he?’ ” Sweet said. “But I don’t see it making a whole lot of headway. It just gets rid of that nagging question. The folks for who it helps were already there. They were never going to vote for Romney.
“Mostly, the big question is, ‘What took him so long?’ ” Sweet said. “It just makes him look a day late and a dollar short.”