WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage marked a rare moment of risk-taking on the most divisive civil-rights issue in the nation, changing the dynamics of his race for re-election.
Obama’s decision to declare his personal belief that same- sex couples should be allowed to marry thrilled his supporters at a time when the president needs enthusiastic backing and campaign cash from his base, even as 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 Obama’s standing in politically competitive states including North Carolina — which voted the night before his announcement to ban gay marriage — as well as Florida, Ohio and Virginia, homes to amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
Still, Obama’s decision to tell ABC News that he’d decided “it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” doesn’t change the outlook for legalizing gay marriage nationally. That would take the elimination of a federal law that prohibits the government from recognizing same-sex spouses, and nullification of constitutional amendments in 38 states that don’t recognize such unions.
“I don’t think it’s a milestone in the actual obtaining of gay rights — it’s a symbolic milestone,” said George C. Edwards III, a specialist in the American presidency at Texas A &M University. “But sometimes, symbolism is what people are looking for in politics.”
For Obama, it was an unusual instance in which he used the bully pulpit to take a stand on an issue that deeply divides Americans. Fifty percent of respondents said in a May 3-6 Gallup poll that same-sex marriages should be recognized as legal, with 48 percent saying they shouldn’t.
The president’s embrace of gay marriage isn’t as momentous as when President Lyndon Johnson pushed through passage of the Civil Rights Act, fully aware that Southern voters would turn against his Democratic Party. At the same time, it is a noticeable departure from the play-it-safe mode most incumbents adopt just six months from Election Day.
Heather Cronk, managing director at GetEQUAL, a group advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said Obama’s statement showed “great courage.”
“It’s not the only step — and we will absolutely keep the pressure on all our elected leaders to take concrete action toward legal equality for LGBT Americans — but it’s a significant day in our nation’s history, and we look forward to working with the president to make full LGBT equality a reality,” Cronk said.
Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, said Obama’s statement may not have a major influence on the campaign.
“There will be a lot of talk, a lot of huffing and puffing from both sides in the next 48 hours, but the election is still about jobs and the economy — not gay marriage,” he said.
That didn’t stop both sides from seizing on the moment and working it to their advantage.
Religious conservatives, who resisted Romney’s candidacy during the Republican primary and have yet to coalesce behind him, said Obama’s move would give the former Massachusetts governor the intensity from their community he lacks.
“There’s two camps celebrating this today: Those activists who are advocating for the redefinition of marriage, and the Mitt Romney campaign,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “The president just handed Mitt Romney the missing piece to the picture of enthusiasm for his campaign.”
Democrats said the president will make gains with important constituencies he needs to be re-elected, including young people.
“People against gay marriage weren’t going to vote for the president anyway, and he gets enormous credit with voters under 40,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and former congressional aide. “There are places it will hurt him and places it will help him. Overall, people want a politician to say what they believe.”
That’s especially true of gay supporters of Obama who have been withholding donations for his re-election because of his stance on same-sex marriage.
Juan Ahonen-Jover, who said he and his partner Ken Ahonen- Jover had planned to refrain from giving to Obama this year “to send the president a message” on the issue, said he made a $10,000 contribution to his re-election campaign — the maximum allowed — within 30 minutes of the president’s televised statement.
An adviser to some of the top lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender donors in the country through his website eQualitygiving.org, he hand-delivered a letter to Obama at the president’s first White House Cinco de Mayo party on May 4, 2009, that read: “When you say that you believe marriage is between a man and a woman, please know that those words feel like a knife going through our hearts.”
“People like us will donate immediately,” Ahonen-Jover said. “This is exactly what we’ve been looking for, the moral leadership that marriage equality is a right for everybody.”
Hours after the ABC interview was aired, Obama sent a letter to his campaign supporters explaining his reasons for supporting gay marriage. The letter closed with an appeal for donations.
Beyond the immediate impact on the re-election’s campaign account, polls suggest the gay marriage issue could drive key voting constituencies.
Independents support same-sex marriage 57 percent to 40 percent, according to the Gallup Poll, putting them closer to Democrats’ views on the issue than Republicans’. And their resistance to same-sex marriage is declining quickly, according to the most recent April 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Pew data shows a 7-point drop in opposition among independents over the last four years and a 15- point drop over the last eight years.
Romney could benefit with older people, because opposition to gay marriage tends to increase by age. Just 30 percent of 18- to-29-year-olds were opposed to gay marriage in the Pew survey, compared with 56 percent of those over the age of 65.
Catholics, already upset over passage of the Affordable Health Care Act and the White House regulations on providing abortion coverage to charitable institutions’ employees, also could move toward the Republican ticket in more numbers.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Obama’s comments “in support of the redefinition of marriage are deeply saddening.” In a statement, Dolan said, “The people of this country, especially our children, deserve better.”
Finally, Republicans said Romney could also get a boost in politically competitive states. Ralph Reed, chairman of the Duluth, Ga.-based Faith and Freedom Coalition, called Obama’s statement “a gift to the Romney campaign” that would “energize the opposition” to Obama in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia.
With assistance from Greg Giroux, Kate Anderson Brower, Margaret Talev, Julianna Goldman and Greg Stohr in Washington.