President Barack Obama has arguably done more than any other president for the LGBT community. He was proactive on repealing prohibitions on gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed forces, and last year, his administration announced it wouldn’t defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law banning the recognition of same-sex marriages.
These actions make his reluctance to lead on marriage equality and an executive order on workplace protections for gay and transgender Americans all the more frustrating for activists. Pollsters think he’s worried what voters will think if he comes out fully in support of marriage equality, but it’s questionable whether this would really hurt his re-election chances.
Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza seems to think it would, writing that the president is reluctant to side with gay marriage advocates in part because of a fear that black voters will shun him if he does.
WATCH MICHAEL STEELE AND JONATHAN CAPEHART DISCUSS GAY MARRIAGE:
To reach this conclusion, Cillizza points to polls that suggest increasing support for gay marriage among affluent and well-educated white voters, independent voters, and voters between the ages of 40-49. Yet, he argues, the administration is shying away from supporting gay marriage because polls show a majority of African-American voters disapprove.
“Viewed through that lens, coming out in support of gay marriage looks like an unnecessary political risk for Obama,” Cillizza concludes. “Yes, it would clearly thrill a portion of his base (gays and lesbians) but it could alienate — at least in parts — another portion of his base (African Americans) that he desperately need to win reelection this fall.”
Cillizza has the polling data correct, but his analysis is off base. My colleague Ruy Teixeira, who studies polling and demographic trends for the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation, offered a more plausible theory for President Obama’s reticence on gay marriage.
“I think it’s more likely because of white, working-class voters, who tend to be pretty unenthusiastic on the issue as well,” Teixeira told me. “He’s already in enough trouble with these voters for them to be hesitant about further annoying them by changing his stance on gay marriage.”
On the other hand, even the most conservative, church-going black voters have other issues on their collective minds than punishing the president for what he says, or doesn’t say, about gay marriage.
Jamelle Bouie at the American Prospect makes this clear, writing recently that African-Americans are most concerned with jobs, health care, and economic growth.
“When you couple this with extremely high support for President Obama — and also, the fact that black people hold different opinions on different things — it’s no real surprise that African-Americans, as a class, are less interested in whether gay people can marry or serve openly in the military,” Bouie writes.
Or, as another of my colleagues Aisha Moodie-Mills, an advisor for CAP’s LGBT Progress team, says, “It’s really quite ridiculous to believe that black folks would stay home and not vote for the first black president over gay marriage. It’s just ludicrous! No megachurch pastor, as bigoted as he may be, has the power to persuade a whole congregation of black folks to turn against this president.”
Black voters may not have much enthusiasm for marriage equality, but President Obama’s views on the subject don’t shake African-American support for him.
“The president has overwhelming support from the black church because people are looking at the bigger picture,” civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery told The Post last year. “He will not be hurt by one issue.”
But that’s not the real game afoot. The noxious idea that gay marriage will be President Obama’s kryptonite is part of the conservative mischief-making machine, a divide-and-conquer gambit to pit the diverse interests of progressives against one another. In this case, the conservative strategy is to drive a wedge between African-American voters and gay and lesbian voters, making it appear that the president must choose between favoring one group and offending the other.
But it won’t work. Black voters will be enthusiastic and fully supportive of the president. Gay and lesbian voters, too. Why am I so sure? Well, it’s the nature of politics. At some points along the way, even the most favored politician will make decisions or behave in ways that even ardent supporters dislike. In this case, I’d prefer to hear President Obama be as clear and affirmative on gay marriage as others in his cabinet have. In time, I believe he will.
But right now, in the heat of a re-election campaign, rational and progressive voters understand what’s going on—and what’s at stake. There’s really no choice. Staying away from the polls or siding with the hateful alternative is a deal with the devil.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.