By Cliff Dunn
TALLAHASSEE – The battle lines are forming up, following President Barack Obama’s history-making endorsement last week of same sex marriage. In an interview with ABC News that aired in part last Wednesday night and concluded the next day on “Good Morning America,” the chief executive became the first sitting president to support full marriage equality for gays and lesbians, saying, “I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”
The spin doctors of both major parties immediately set about offering words of encouragement and condemnation. On Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott (R-Florida) told CNBC host Larry Kudlow that Obama’s public statement could have a strong negative impact in Florida, an impact that may be felt in his campaign for reelection and his ability to win Florida, with its large bloc of 29 electoral votes.
While referring to same sex marriage as a “non-issue” in the Sunshine State, Scott, who was elected governor in 2010 after spending approximately $75 million of his own fortune in his bid for the state’s top office, said that the conservative views of most Floridians had been heard at the ballot box, and that the president should take heed.
“It has already been decided,” Scott told Kudlow. “In 2008, over 60 percent of our voters passed a constitutional amendment saying there is not going to be same-sex marriage in Florida, so it’s a non-issue here. It will hurt the president here in Florida, his position.” During the 2008 presidential race, Obama won in Florida, beating his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, 51 to 48 percent. That margin is cause for concern as Democratic strategists weigh the numerous factors that will come into play in deciding the outcome in swing states with large electoral vote counts, including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia, all of which swung to Obama four years ago.
Other Republicans joined the chorus questioning Obama’s decision. “I think it’s going to cause an incredible discussion in the black community, because, as you know, on Sundays in the black community the most conservative people in America are in those black churches,” Rep. Allen West (R-Florida) said to ABC News last week. “I think it may have been a huge miscalculation, especially when you have 41 states that recognize marriage between one man and one woman, and you just came off an incredible loss to them. Sixty-nine percent voted [to ban same-sex marriage] in North Carolina, which is a key swing state he barely won last time,” said West said, who added that even though blacks supported the president four years ago, marriage equality was banned in both Florida and California.
In 1997, the Republican-controlled Florida legislature adopted the Defense of Marriage Act and likewise banned recognition of gay marriages performed in other states. At that time, only 27 percent of American said they supported same sex marriage. In 2008, opponents of marriage equality successfully championed passage of an amendment banning it the Florida state constitution.
Among the “big picture” questions being asked at water coolers and in the halls of Congress alike is what precisely motivated President Obama to announce his support for gay marriage, after more than two years of professing an “evolving” view on the topic? The appearance of Vice President Joe Biden days earlier in an interview in which he offered his own support for same sex marriage is seen by many as a happy (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) unguarded moment on Biden’s part that “forced” Obama’s hand in making his own endorsement.
A new CBS News/New York Times survey shows that 67 percent believe that the president made his policy shift “mostly for political reasons,” and 24 percent say he did it “mostly because he thinks it is right.” The poll also shows that Americans’ ideas of fairness and equality have shifted, but remain complicated. According to the survey, 38 percent of Americans favor full marriage equality rights for gays, while 24 percent support civil unions that include many of the rights and privileges of formal marriage. A full third—33 percent—of Americans are against any kind of legal recognition. That number jumped when civil unions were dropped as an option, with 51 percent opposing same sex marriage and 42 percent supporting it.
Another important factor in the marriage equality debate is the growing number of Americans who admit to knowing or being friends with a gay or lesbian individual. In 2003, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that 44 percent had a coworker, friend, or family member who was gay. That number jumped to 69 percent in the new survey, with those individuals who know a gay person more likely to favor marriage equality.
Last month, the CBS News/New York Times poll found Obama and Romney tied, with 46 percent supporting each man. The most recent survey shows a slight edge for Romney over Obama—46 to 43 percent, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points, meaning the race remains a statistical dead heat.
The president’s vulnerability remains in spite of increased optimism about the economy. This may explain, at least in part, his shifting the debate away from “daddy” issues—those which relate to the economy, national security, and other policy matters where Republicans tend to hold sway among voters—toward “mommy” issues, which swing voters to Democrats, and which include social policy and spending, healthcare topics—and LGBT rights. By changing the conversation from those issues which are contentious for the president—jobs, the still-anemic economy, and the continuing distrust for Wall Street—to those which have the support of moderates and independents, Obama may be able to influence the dynamics which have thus far shaped the presidential race, and the way his countrymen perceive him.
Among those Americans who may perceive the president in the most critical light are social and religious conservatives. The president, who has professed his religious faith many times, must now convince religious voters, many who are divided over marriage equality, that his views on gay marriage don’t represent an attack on religious liberties or the freedom of churches to refuse to perform services that run contrary to their core beliefs. “We’re both practicing Christians,” Obama said during the interview, referring to his wife and himself. “And obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others.”
In recognition of that important base of the electorate, shortly after declaring support for marriage equality, Obama placed a conference call to more than a half dozen African American ministers to explain his announcement and defend its consequences. The pastors represent one of the most divided constituencies the president has: black Americans who overwhelmingly support Obama while at the same time opposing marriage equality rights for gays.
According to the Rev. Delman Coates, a pastor who was on the conference call, the chief executive told the ministers that his decision had been a struggle of conscience, but that he believed he had made the right one. Most of the participating pastors agreed to “work aggressively” for the president’s reelection, but not all of them. “They were wrestling with their ability to get over his theological position,” said Coates, pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Maryland. “Gay marriage is contrary to their understanding of Scripture.”
Rev. Joel C. Hunter, the pastor of Northland, a conservative mega-church based in Central Florida, also spoke with the president on the phone after the ABC interview. “Some of the faith communities are going to be afraid that this is an attack against religious liberty,” Hunter told the president. “Absolutely not,” the president assured Hunter, who was elected President of the Christian Coalition in 2006, and who delivered a blessing for Obama in 2009 prior to his inauguration. “That’s not where we’re going, and that’s not what I want,” the president added.