Many people were surprised last week when, in an interview with ABC News' Robin Roberts, Barack Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage. Previously an opponent of the idea, Obama looked, for all intents and purposes, like he had been dragged into the announcement by statements made days earlier by Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, both of whom argued it was a cultural progression whose time had come.
Aides to the president said Obama's views on the issue had evolved over time while his political opponents accused him of "flip-flopping," an unfair charge given that few people actually believed the president when he said he was against it.
Nonetheless Obama has waded hip deep into the thorniest social issue currently in the political arena. The venerable Gallup organization just released a poll indicating that a majority of Americans, 60 percent, said Obama's new position "will make no difference" in the way they vote in November. That same poll also showed, however, that twice as many people said it "will make them less likely to vote for Obama as say more likely," which may prove critical in the dozen or so swing states—many of them traditionally Republican at the presidential level but which went for Obama last time out—that will likely determine the outcome of the upcoming election.
In North Carolina, for example, a state Obama barely carried in 2008, voters last Tuesday approved by 60 percent to 40 percent an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage.
On the upside for the president, this latest iteration of his position on the issue should make it easier for him to raise money from the far left and from the Hollywood crowd, who contributed an estimated $15 million to his re-election effort at a fundraiser held at the home of superstar George Clooney the day after Obama talked to ABC News.
On the downside, his support for gay marriage, tepid though it actually is, is likely to alienate voters in key battleground states like Ohio, Florida, Virginia and the aforementioned North Carolina. It may also dampen enthusiasm for giving him a second term among African-Americans, who are Obama's strongest bloc of supporters but who are also overwhelmingly opposed to giving same-sex unions the same status as traditional marriage.
It is also the case that the more you learn about where the president now stands, the more confused you become. According to ABC News' own analysis of the interview, Obama "stressed this is a personal position, and that he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own." This is an odd position for a self-described constitutional scholar to take since, according to the U.S. Constitution, a marriage valid in one state must be considered valid by all states—which is the whole reason behind the federal Defense of Marriage Act (which the Obama administration has declined to defend at the appellate level) and for calls for a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.
It is true that talking about gay marriage allows the president to avoid talking about jobs and the economy. It's also true that it baits his political opponents into talking about something other than the No. 1 issue on the mind of most voters. Still and all, the political ramifications of his announcement in the swing states may leave him thinking he might have best left well enough alone.