It was the political equivalent of that Northeast earthquake that took the East Coast by surprise last summer, a sort of Metta World Peace elbow to the neck. When President Obama felt his hand forced, he went straight into damage control mode and unleashed gut with all the fury of a calibrated politico.
It started off like an “aw shucks – ok … you got me” moment; first backed into the corner, but smart messaging aikido that flipped the political script on Republican opponents hungry for a Culture War opening. It was an odd moment: in the midst of a dragging recovery in which official unemployment is still double what it’s supposed to be, this president takes on one of the more volatile social issues head on.
Check out the setting, too. Pick family-friendly, Disney-owned ABC for the moment; spread the announcement love a little early, not too far removed from Vice President Joe Biden’s “oops” moment and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s “WTF – I’m in;” right on the tip of an emotional North Carolina Amendment One vote in which the purple state put its thumbs down on gay marriage and suddenly added a new wrinkle in the 2012 universe.
Was it just the Biden hiccup? Probably not – this was at least weeks in the making. Prickly LGBT donors and supporters saw the writing on the wall with North Carolina Amendment One. Questions were raised about the Democratic National Convention’s North Carolina location. With the convention already low on loot since it’s not accepting corporate cash (leaving unions to do the heavy lifting), the blow of a LGBT boycott over the NC 1 vote would have been fatal.
In one carefully orchestrated stroke of genius, the Commander-in-Chief plays it like pitcher Cole Hamels tapping Bryce Harper with a 93-mph fastball.
First: He waxed street cred with the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) lobby that wasn’t so sure – even after repeal of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” – if it would go all out for him in November. Think about this: 1 in 6 of the Obama campaign fundraising “bundlers” are gay. Now, they can breathe easier when they ask for money from a once reluctant community. And, now, no worries over a mass LGBT boycott of the Democratic convention in North Carolina.
Second: He owns and settles the issue, wrestling it from the right in mixed martial arts fashion before his competitor, presumptive nominee Gov. Mitt Romney, knows what hit him. Mix that flavor in with the curiously timed disclosure of Romney’s high school prep boy casting for Lord of the Flies where he doesn’t deny that he gay-bashed. Now, Republicans are trapped in a proverbial pickle jar of their own making, unable to control the vicious anti-everything-that-isn’t-White-male-and-nuclear-family urges of their hard right and unwilling to take the chance of looking too anti-gay.
Third: He transitions conversation from the national nag over lackluster job growth and slow productivity by capturing an issue folks will chatter endlessly about over Starbucks lattes and downed shots of Jack. “For the first few weeks, there will be quite a bit of raw emotion over this,” predicts North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling’s Jim Williams. “But, eventually, it will pass.” Once the raw, numbing sensation of the first Black President giving an official first hat tip to same-sex marriage wears off, the general electorate will go back to business as usual.
Fourth: Picking Robin Roberts is like clever neo-Blaxploitation for the visual, a message not only for the LGBT community (who knows what closet Roberts lurks in), but also for his most hardened, steadfast fans: Black women. It’s the President swooning more Al Green, a baritone “This is For You Ladies,” picking one of the more recognizable and highly respected Black female faces in broadcast television on the highest ranking morning show. He’ll have fewer problems with that demographic come November.
Fifth: Young voters, particularly young White voters who care about this kind of stuff, now believe the President is willing to take chances and buck conventional wisdom … and Washington – which is what they liked about him in 2008 and what they were telling their just-turned-18 friends about in 2012. If he’s willing to stick his neck out on gay marriage, who knows, maybe he’ll find a way to forgive student loan debt or decriminalize marijuana, so the thinking goes.
What we do know is that the political landscape has reached some eerie tipping point, not just in terms of the marriage equality, but by virtue of an African American Democrat setting the standard on the social issues conversation. That’s unusual, making Republicans nervous. This spring has witnessed a number of bizarre political upheavals as Democrats have taken the offensive on highly polarizing wedge topics such as contraceptives and women’s rights.
Predictably, Republicans will pivot hard back to the economy, since that’s still the top concern for most. And a recent Gallup tracking poll now finds 61% of registered voters believe Romney would handle the economy better. But, it’s one thing to talk up White House failures on the unemployment rate, but look where that message is coming from: a detached White guy worth over a quarter of a billion dollars.
That said, gay marriage is still a hot potato and there’s no telling when it will cool down.
“Like buying the right stock but buying it too early or too late, getting on the right side of a political trend is not always a good thing if the timing is wrong but can yield great results if the timing is right,” Thomas Riehle of YouGov.com tells Politic365. “In the long run, Democrats will benefit and Republicans will suffer if the parties line up on polarized opposite sides on gay marriage, but no politician’s career occurs in the long run,” add Riehle.
Is it a gamble? A strong 43% of the country is still opposed to gay marriage; but, that’s after 62% opposed it in 2005. That 43% might be a strong indicator of who was, definitely, not voting for the President anyway. In the wake of the announcement, he may lose some independents and moderates. But, perhaps he’s feeling as though he can spare a few and not have to worry about committing rhetorical acrobatics to keep them on board.
The most recent Gallup tracking poll feels the same way. About 6 in 10 Americans, according to the post-announcement survey, say it won’t sway their vote at all. Still, “[t]wice as many say it will make them less likely to vote for Obama as say more likely, though roughly half of the “less likely” group are Republicans who probably would not support Obama anyway.”
“Those figures suggest Obama’s gay marriage position is likely to cost him more independent and Democratic votes than he would gain in independent and Republican votes, clearly indicating that his new position is more of a net minus than a net plus for him,” observes Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones. “However, those figures also underscore that it is a relatively limited group of voters.”
Overall, for the election, it’s tight, though. The RealClearPolitics.com polling average finds the President ahead by only 2.0 percentage points. We’ll see what more numbers say this week.