Barack Obama's Mixed-Bag Week

The Obama camp can celebrate Dick Lugar defeat, but should worry about the Scott Walker recall.

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Last week was a deeply mixed week for President Obama. How else to describe a week in which the incumbent won only 59 percent of the vote in the West Virginia presidential primary? Or that Keith Judd, who won the other 41 percent, is currently serving time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, Texas?

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

And Team Obama also cannot have been especially happy about Tuesday's results from the primary setting the field against Wisconsin's reviled Gov. Scott Walker. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett handily beat former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk—58 to 34 percent, according to preliminary results—though Falk was the favored candidate of labor unions. Democrats need a strong showing from labor both on June 5, when Barrett and Walker rerun their 2010 race, and on November 6, so the fact that Falk badly underperformed cannot instill confidence going into the recall and general elections.

For their part, the unions are "pivoting fast," says Jeff Mayers, president of the political website WisPolitics. "The great motivator here ... is the goal of getting Walker is much bigger than that." In other words, Barrett's base is motivated more by loathing of the incumbent than love for him, making him the Mitt Romney of Wisconsin politics.

At the same time, Walker displayed organizational muscle: While facing only token opposition in the GOP primary, he pulled in more votes than Barrett and Falk combined.

Somewhat more muddled are the politics of President Obama's midweek profession of support for same-sex marriage. For one thing, presidents never want to be dragged into making major policy announcements. He reportedly planned to keep his views "evolving" until some time before the Democratic convention. But that timing withered before Vice President Joe Biden's mouth. Biden created a media-political firestorm that was only stoked by the shameful prejudice of voters in the maybe (or maybe-no-longer) battleground state of North Carolina.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Will Obama's Support of Gay Marriage Help Him Politically?]

The issue is fraught for Obama, starting with the overwhelming Tarheel endorsement Tuesday of Amendment 1, which constitutionally proscribes any "domestic legal union" in the state beyond "marriage between one man and one woman." Obama won there four years ago, and Democrats had situated this year's convention there in hopes of keeping the state. By midmorning Wednesday, more than 14,000 people had signed an online petition demanding the party move the convention elsewhere. But where to? All told, 38 states have legally prohibited same-sex marriage, while only six (and the District of Columbia) permit it. Obama's declaration, while admirable (and overdue), places him at odds with voters in North Carolina and other swing states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Also keep in mind that the issue can be a wedge for traditional Democratic constituencies. As MSNBC reported Wednesday, majority-black counties in North Carolina overwhelmingly supported Amendment 1. Are blacks going to turn on Obama over the issue? No. But he also can't afford any fracturing of his support from that group.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

On the other side, national polling has moved very quickly on the issue, with only 30 percent supporting marriage equality as recently as 2004, when the Bush campaign used it as a wedge to help sink John Kerry. "Obama's senior advisers see the announcement as essentially a political wash," National Journal's Ron Brownstein reported. He added that the main elements of the emerging Obama coalition—young voters, liberal whites, and minorities (excepting blacks) all strongly support gay marriage. And there was a very practical concern for the Obama team: One in six Obama campaign finance bundlers is gay, according to the Washington Post.

The clearest indication that Obama's advisers are correct about it being net neutral politically came from Mitt Romney and other GOP leaders. While they all made ritual denunciations of Obama's decision, they almost uniformly dropped it as quickly as possible, preferring to focus on economic rather than culture war issues. Influential pollster Jan van Lohuizen, whose clients included George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, issued a memo essentially telling conservatives that opposition to gay marriage is a lost cause. The GOP's sudden disttste for the issue is like the dog that didn't bark in the old Sherlock Holmes story--a very telling silence.