WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s historic endorsement of same-sex marriage on Wednesday marked a rare moment of risk-taking on the most divisive civil-rights issue in the United States, changing the dynamics of his race for re-election.
Mr Obama’s decision to declare his personal belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry thrilled his supporters at a time when he needs enthusiastic backing and campaign cash from his base.
But it stoked outrage among critics who presumptive Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney is counting on to help him unseat the incumbent in November.
It also threatened to erode Mr Obama’s standing in politically competitive states, including North Carolina – which voted on Tuesday to ban gay marriage – as well as Florida, Ohio and Virginia, which have all passed amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
The timing of Mr Obama’s statement was hardly ideal for his campaign, coming almost immediately on the heels of his official campaign kick-off last Saturday.
It was prompted largely by an impromptu declaration by Vice-President Joe Biden in a television interview the next day that he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage. Also, two Cabinet members have affirmed support for gay marriage.
However, Mr Obama’s decision to tell ABC News that he had decided “it is important to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married” does not change the outlook for legalising gay marriage nationally.
That would take the elimination of a federal law that prohibits the government from recognising same-sex spouses, as well as nullification of constitutional amendments in 38 states that do not recognise such unions.
“I don’t think it’s a milestone in the actual obtaining of gay rights – it’s a symbolic milestone,” said Mr George Edwards III, a specialist in the American presidency at Texas A&M University in College Station. “But sometimes, symbolism is what people are looking for in politics.”
The President’s embrace of gay marriage is not as momentous as when President Lyndon Johnson pushed through passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. But it is a noticeable departure from the play-it-safe mode most incumbents adopt only six months from Election Day.
Polls suggest the issue could drive key voting constituencies. Among registered independent voters, 57 per cent approve of gay marriage, according to a Gallup poll completed last weekend.
Among Democrats, approval is at 65 per cent, while 22 per cent of Republicans approve of it.
In total, 50 per cent of Americans now support gay marriage and 48 per cent oppose it. That is an increase from only 40-per-cent approval four years ago.
Mr Romney stands to benefit with older people, because opposition to gay marriage tends to increase by age.
Only 30 per cent of 18- to-29-year-olds were opposed to gay marriage, compared with 56 per cent of those over the age of 65, according to a survey last month by Pew Research Center.