Marriage law is decided by states, not the federal government. If President Obama decides he supports gay marriage, nothing will immediately change legally. And it’s not clear taking such a stance would either lose or win the election for him.

But here’s why his stance matters: Obama is a considered by some Democrats, particularly African-Americans, as a leader, and not just in terms of politics. His stature and extremely high support in the black community has silenced or weakened voices, like that of Tavis Smiley, who have tried to take on the president. He collects not just the votes of African-Americans, but black athletes, entertainers and other public figures who greatly admire and respect him.

What that means is that an open declaration of support of gay marriage by Obama will not be ignored by black voters. And it could cause a dramatic increase in gay marriage support among blacks. African-Americans voters, according to polls, are more likely to oppose gay marriage than other Democratic blocs of the electorate, and a look at the results by county and precinct suggest black voters largely backed the gay marriage ban in North Carolina.

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Viewed in this context, Obama’s gay marriage stance is less important because of his position as, effectively, American’s chief policy director and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, and more important because he is also the country’s most influential Democrat and by far its most important black leader.

If Obama publicly announced support of gay marriage, advocates could point to Obama’s own words, which they could then use to appeal to Democrats and black voters on future gay marriage votes. Obama’s words might cause at least some black voters to reconsider their own views on the issue. Pastors who support gay marriage could cite Obama, who no doubt would give a thoughtful, reasoned rationale for how Christians can support gay unions.

That is likely to be much more powerful than the words of a press spokesman articulating Obama’s opposition to a gay marriage ban, which is all gay rights advocates in North Carolina had on Tuesday, because Obama did not speak about publicly against the gay marriage amendment.

Looking forward, conservatives in Maryland are collecting signatures for a referendum in November that would overturn a bill passed there earlier this year that allows gay couples to wed. While more liberal than North Carolina, Maryland is also a state full of church-going African-Americans who could play a key role in any gay marriage vote.
Obama’s words the next few months on this issue could help shape a vote there.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr