May 17, 2012 at 11:07 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Experts debate impact of Obama’s marriage support

President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality last week has been heralded as a milestone that inspired and exhilarated LGBT people throughout the country. Now, the practical implications of his words are being analyzed and debated by supporters.

LGBT advocates and political observers have different views on the social, political and legal ramifications of the announcement as they agreed that Obama becoming the first president to support marriage equality was historic in nature.

Richard Socarides, a gay New York attorney who advised former President Clinton on LGBT issues, said the cultural implications of Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage are substantial because it marks “a very positive” turning point on LGBT rights.

“I think having the president on record in favor of this goal is very important, and I think it will help shape the discussion that we’re having as a country about this, and I think it’ll help it in a very positive direction,” Socarides said.

Jeff Krehely of the Center for American Progress (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Jeff Krehely, vice president for LGBT programs at the Center for American Progress, said the social implications of Obama’s announcement are huge because the endorsement triggered conversations and additional support for marriage equality that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

“That has a huge impact on the country on the issue, and the lives of gay people, too, who hear something that is very clear and very reassuring and very welcomed,” Krehely said.

Krehely noted Obama’s announcement inspired other noteworthy people — ranging from Democratic leaders like Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) to celebrities like Will Smith and Jay-Z — to voice their support for marriage equality.

“The president’s leadership matters, and we’re seeing that now in the number of people from a wide variety of backgrounds who are now also coming out with their support of marriage,” Krehely said. “I think more than anything, it has completely mainstreamed the issue.”

Questions remain about how Obama’s endorsement will impact states that are deciding the issue. In as many as four states this fall — Minnesota, Maine, Washington and Maryland — residents will vote on ballot initiatives related to same-sex marriage.

Krehely said Obama’s endorsement should have a positive impact.

“I think the president’s leadership on the issue has definitely mainstreamed it, and created a conversation in a lot of quarters that might not be having this conversation, and, I think, at the end of the day, that’s very good for the state fights and for DOMA repeal in Congress as well,” Krehely said.

During the interview in which he announced his support for same-sex marriage, Obama maintained the issue should be left to the states, saying, “I continue to believe that this is an issue that is gonna be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what’s recognized as a marriage.”

The Obama campaign has previously weighed in against anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives in states like North Carolina and Minnesota. That took place even before the announcement in favor of same-sex marriage because Obama’s previous position was that he was opposed to discriminatory efforts directed at gay couples.

Should the LGBT community expect more Obama involvement in state battles? Will the president’s support for marriage equality mean he’ll speak out for the pro-marriage equality side in Maine, Maryland and Washington State?

These questions aren’t restricted to ballot initiatives, but also future legislative fights on same-sex marriage. In a state like Illinois, which could advance same-sex marriage legislation next year, would the voice of a president who represented the state in the U.S. Senate be helpful?

Krehely said it should be up to state organizations running the campaigns to determine if they want Obama’s voice and reach out to the White House if they deem that helpful, but said it may not be beneficial in some circumstances if they don’t want the president to “parachute” into the fray.

“I think, smartly, the White House could be hugely helpful in those state fights, and they weighed in on a number of the ballot campaigns even before his announcement, so I’m assuming that their appetite for doing that kind of state level work remains, if it’s not growing stronger,” Krehely said.

Socarides said the president should focus on winning the election — as well as picking up Democratic seats in Congress.

“It’s going to fall to us and to organizations in those states to wage successful campaigns in each of those places,” Socarides said. “I suspect that what the president has already done will be helpful, and there may be things he can do along the way, but winning those battles is primarily going to be our responsibility.”

Last week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to say whether Obama would speak out on legislative and ballot fights over same-sex marriage when asked by a reporter during a press gaggle abroad Air Force One.

“I’m not going to speculate about what he may say or statements he might issue,” Carney said. “He has on occasion made his position known on actions by individual states, most recently in North Carolina, and I’m sure that continues to be the case. That will continue to be the case.”

Another lingering political question is whether Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage will benefit or jeopardize his chances for re-election when he goes up against presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who opposes same-sex marriage.

Backing marriage rights for gay couples may energize progressive and LGBT voters, but it remains to be seen how it will play out in battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said he thinks the election will overwhelmingly be decided by the economy, but acknowledged some voters will factor same-sex marriage into their decision.

“Overall, I think the ‘red’ states got redder and the ‘blue’ states got bluer,” Sabato said. “Many Democrats are more committed to Obama as a result, and many Republican evangelical voters, who were unexcited about Romney before this, are now 100 percent committed to him — if only to oust Obama.”

In part because of the marriage issue, Sabato said some states that were once considered battlegrounds — Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana — are now quite likely in Romney’s column, but the decision might help Obama in the battleground states of New Hampshire and Colorado.

But Sabato said he’s basing his calculations on evangelical populations in those states and the money that Obama will likely raise from his announcement in favor of same-sex marriage will benefit him in the election.

“Perhaps Obama’s decision helps him raise many millions more, which are then used for TV ads to persuade swing state voters on the economy,” Sabato said. “The calculus is more complicated than it seems.”

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll published Tuesday, Obama’s support for marriage equality is helping him and hurting him in equal measure — much like the country’s nearly even split for and against same-sex marriage. Thirty-one percent of Americans have a higher opinion of Obama because of his support while 30 percent view him less favorably, according to the poll.

Richard Socarides (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Socarides said the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriage will on the whole be positive because it fits well within Obama’s campaign theme of moving the country “forward.”

“He is a forward looking leader who, although deliberative, is willing to stake out policy positions that are forward leaning,” Socarides said. “I think to do otherwise would have really not been helpful. I think that you cannot position yourself as a forward-thinking leader when you have an extremely muddled position on one of the most important policy issues of the day.”

The impact of Obama’s endorsement will also likely be felt in the legal arena. The Justice Department stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act against challenges in court last year, and Obama said last week that his support of same-sex marriage was his personal view without talking too much about legal implications.

Some legal observers believe Obama’s announcement in favor of same-sex marriage could lead the administration to intervene on behalf of federal marriage equality lawsuits — particularly if that litigation reaches the Supreme Court.

The most high-profile of these cases in support of same-sex marriage is the Perry v. Brown lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 8 that is pending before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Socarides expressed confidence that the Obama administration would intervene in a marriage equality case that reaches the Supreme Court, saying if the president supports same-sex marriage, it stands to reason marriage rights for gay couples are constitutionally protected.

“I’m optimistic that despite the president’s statement that he thinks the issue will be played out on the state level for a while, given everything that’s come before this, especially the Justice Department’s position in the DOMA cases, that the government will come into these cases at some point and being willing to assert a federal constitutional right to marriage equality,” Socarides said.

By this time next year, Socarides predicted the federal government would be on record in court that it believes the U.S. Constitution guarantees marriage equality and that the government will file friend-of-the-court briefs in those cases.

Douglas NeJaime, who’s gay and a law professor at Loyola Law School, said the Obama administration weighing in on a Supreme Court case wouldn’t necessarily have much impact.

“One could imagine that if a same-sex marriage case like Perry makes it up to the Supreme Court that the administration could weigh in,” NeJaime said. “That would be important, but there’s no reason that that would necessarily happen, nor that it would be particularly influential.”

NeJaime also said Obama’s support for same-sex marriage “has a huge rhetoric” that could influence the arguments of attorneys in court.

“It disables the anti same-sex marriage lawyers to some extent because they’ve been able to use what the president has said as a way to bolster the reasonableness of their position, and now that seems less plausible,” NeJaime said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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