The Politics Around Obama's Gay Marriage Support

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What's been going on in the White House on same-sex marriage shift? Was this a forced moment or an orchestrated presentation of a policy change? Mara Liasson talks to Audie Cornish about the key elements of the internal and external politics in the days before and after the president's announcement.


NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now to talk about the politics of gay marriage and the president's personal support for it. And, Mara, let's stay with Mitt Romney for just a second. Do you think that the president's message yesterday creates opportunity or challenges for Romney going into the election year?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I think it creates both. It certainly creates an opportunity for him to fire up his social conservative evangelical base. That might help him in states like North Carolina, Colorado, Ohio, Iowa. But at the same time, it does open him up to some questions: What kinds of civil unions is he for or against? As you just heard Tovia say, he doesn't like the kind that are just like marriage. The other thing that he did is he's been very, very careful of how he talks about this.

He's repeated twice that he considers this to be a tender and sensitive topic. He said today several times that he thought that gay couples adopting children was fine. He seems to understand that many of those upscale, suburban, educated swing voters that he is courting are personally fine with gay marriage. And he seems to have a pretty good feel for where he wants to position himself on this issue. You know, Republican leaders in Congress have been pretty quiet about this. They don't want to discuss gay marriage. That being said, Ed Gillespie, who is a top Romney adviser, did say today that the campaign will focus on this issue in the fall.

CORNISH: And what about President Obama? What do the president's advisers say about how this plays for them politically?

LIASSON: Well, no one I've talked to can say with any certainty how this issue nets out. It's a mobilizer for both candidates' bases, for Romney, as well as for Obama. The president has been working so hard to fire up young people for whom this issue is very important. And no one I talked to thought that the resistance to gay marriage among religious African-Americans would in the end hurt the president there. Social issues are not going be - social issue voters are not going to be for him, anyway.

But what his announcement the other day did is it allows him to get back to the economy. If he hadn't made this announcement, he would have been asked about it constantly from now until Election Day. It certainly was a risk. He's now in sync with his party, but way out there on the leading edge of public opinion, which, as you just heard, is only about 50 percent for gay marriage.

But as one Democratic strategist said to me, you know, you can slice and dice the political effects of this on various states, but the bottom line is that this is about the larger dynamic of the race. It fits in very well with the president's overall message of fairness and equality, with the slogan going forward, and it reinforces his brand as a politician who says what he believes as opposed to I'm evolving, which didn't quite sent that message.

CORNISH: And let's just hit the pause button for a second here. How did we get here? I mean, for more than a year, the president has talked, awkwardly some say, about his personal evolution on this issue. And then all of sudden, it's done.

LIASSON: Well, it was done because Vice President Joe Biden forced the president's hand. Up until his appearance on the Sunday talk shows, the president was happy to focus on all the things that he'd done for the gay community, not defending the Defense of Marriage Act, ending "don't ask, don't tell," signing the Matthew Shepard hate crimes law and just saying, you know, he was evolving on the issue of gay marriage. The White House says that the president finished evolving personally three months ago.

They'd planned to announce this before the convention. They wanted to avoid a messy platform fight about gay marriage. They certainly didn't plan to do it yesterday, just a day after the North Carolina vote. But when Biden said what he did and as the president said, the vice president got a little bit over the top of his skis, the White House knew that they had to try to put out the firestorm. It didn't work, so the president just decided to go for it. And it's interesting because no one in the White House claims that they've figured out all the political angles of this, either.

CORNISH: And at the end of the day, what, if anything, has really changed?

LIASSON: Nothing. The president isn't planning to introduce legislation. There's no Justice Department action. He's not going to do anything that would prevent states from deciding on their own to allow or ban gay marriages or civil unions. At some point in the future, the Supreme Court might take this up. The president might be pushed to go further than just his personal opinion. But despite the changing trend in public opinion nationally, virtually every time this has come before voters in a referendum on the state level, a gay marriage ban has succeeded. And right now, 39 states have some kind of ban.

CORNISH: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you, Audie.

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