On hearing of the death of the great French diplomat Talleyrand, his Austrian rival Metternich is reputed to have said: "What did he mean by that?" Perhaps we can be too cynical in assessing politicians' motives. And so maybe we should just give President Obama credit for doing the right thing in endorsing marriage equality, and leave it at that.
But everything a president running for reelection does is subject to political analysis. President Obama certainly hasn't jumped on a wildly popular position. Support for gay marriage has been rising fast, from about 30 percent in 2004 to 50 percent today, but the country is at best split right now. It will be interesting to see how much the president's support moves popular opinion; polls have shown every group in society moving in a more approving direction except Republicans and conservatives, and Obama's support may accelerate that division.
Obama's new position isn't likely to make much difference with the gay vote. Exit polls gave him 70 percent in 2008. Republicans captured 31 percent of the gay vote in 2010, a big Republican year, and only 23 percent in 2004 after President Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But that's not a lot of difference in a small voting bloc. Obama may well have encouraged a bigger turnout among gay voters, however. And already, an incredible one-sixth of his big-money bundlers are openly gay, so this shift is likely to mean more money from those networks.
I see three constituencies with whom Obama's new position should help him big-time:
- Hollywood. This move re-establishes Obama's cool. Hope and change are back. Movie stars will be falling over themselves to be photographed with the president. That means money, excitement, and publicity. (This corroboration just in.)
- Silicon Valley. Creative and successful people are getting tired of being targets of antitrust and other regulators, and surely Obama's constant demonization of the "one percent" is galling to people who have made big money by being creative and hard-working. And they had to fight with Hollywood for Obama's support on SOPA and related bills. But the young, socially liberal tech community will join their Hollywood neighbors in new excitement for the president.
- The youth vote. With the wars slogging on, the economy not producing jobs, the president mocking the idea of drug legalization, young people were becoming less enamored of Obama. He won 66 percent of the 18-29 vote in 2008. Republicans still aren't doing well with young voters, but the thrill was gone from their view of Obama. Pollster John Zogby pointed to young voters' libertarian leanings as a problem for the president. But now Obama is cool again. The wars may continue, and there may be no jobs, but at least the president is now leading on this generation's civil rights issue. Even a year ago, support for marriage equality was at 70 percent among young people. I suspect the president has reestablished his position as the overwhelming favorite of young voters, which will serve the Democrats well for years to come. Mitt Romney will help them by lining up with the minority of voters who oppose not just marriage but civil unions.
Obama's campaign seems to believe that his new position is a political winner, judging by the look of his campaign website today and a new video titled "“Mitt Romney: Backwards on Equality.” Further deterioration in Democratic support among the white working class may be a good trade for money from gays, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley and renewed enthusiasm from young voters.