The president's new position is a bet on the future of the Democratic Party -- and an admission that the New Deal coalition isn't coming back.
President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage undoubtedly reflects a personal evolution in his thinking, as he's said.
But his decision also reflects a hard-headed acknowledgement of the changing nature of the Democratic electoral coalition. Indeed, historians may someday view Obama's announcement Wednesday as a milestone in the evolution of his party's political strategy, because it shows the president and his campaign team are increasingly comfortable responding to the actual coalition that elects Democrats today -- not the one that many in the party remember from their youth.
Obama's senior advisers see the announcement as essentially a political wash, although polls now consistently show more Americans support than oppose gay marriage. In its latest national measure, the Pew Research Center found in April that a 47 percent to 43 percent plurality of Americans back same-sex marriage. Other recent national surveys, including those by Gallup and the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, have found majority or plurality support for the idea.
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Obama's announcement might not significantly change the overall level of his 2012 support, especially in an election where economic issues will dominate. But the announcement may reflect the Obama camp's thinking about the likely composition of his support. It shows the president, however reluctantly, formulating an agenda that implicitly acknowledges the party is unlikely to recreate the support it attracted from the white working-class and senior voters who anchored Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition. Instead, the announcement shows him reaching out to mobilize the new pillars of the Democratic electorate, particularly younger people and socially liberal white collar whites.
"It was crystal clear that he didn't want to get off the fence on this issue before the election if he could possibly avoid it; this is not a bright line he wants to draw," said long-term Democratic strategist Bill Galston, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "He realizes it intensifies the divide between what might be called the emerging Democratic coalition and the pieces of the old coalition that he wanted to retain. But things had gotten to a point where he felt he had no choice."
In one sense, Obama's shift on gay marriage does little more than catch him up to his party's mainstream; his ambiguity on the question risked leaving him behind a solidifying consensus within his party. By the end of this year, 13 of the 18 "blue wall" states that have voted Democratic in at least the past five consecutive elections may have authorized gay marriage or civil unions. Leading potential 2016 Democratic presidential contenders like governors Andrew Cuomo in New York and Martin O'Malley in Maryland have embraced the idea. And the most recent Gallup poll showed 70 percent of Democrats backed same-sex marriage.
Yet Obama's shift on gay marriage remains politically significant because many Democratic leaders have resisted embracing it for the same reasons the party has lost enthusiasm for gun control and blinked at fully pursuing comprehensive immigration reform. In each case, the party's primary fear has been losing support among the most socially conservative elements of the white electorate: blue-collar, older and rural whites.
Those voters remain undeniably cool on gay marriage. In that most recent Pew poll, while 47 percent of all Americans backed the idea, it drew support from just 40 percent of white men without a college education, 43 percent of white women without a college education, 42 percent of whites over 50, and a meager 32 percent of white seniors, according to figures provided by Pew. Those numbers help explain why virtually every Republican-leaning state in presidential politics, most of them in the South and across the heartland, have banned gay marriage either by statute or constitutional amendment.
Yet even while resisting gay marriage, shelving immigration reform, and abandoning gun control, Democrats have hemorrhaged support among those socially conservative white voters in recent years. In 2008, John McCain won nearly three-fifths of both non-college whites and white seniors. In 2010, the Republican House candidates won more than three fifths of the vote from both groups -- and routed "Blue Dog" Democrats in rural and blue-collar House districts. Most 2012 polls show Obama struggling with both groups and in particular facing an uphill climb to match the mere 40 percent of the vote he captured among non-college whites last time.