Obama and the Politics of Gay Marriage: It's Complicated

President Barack Obama delivers his remarks at the Human Rights Campaign's 15th annual national dinner in Washington Saturday Oct. 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (National Journal)

The chance that President Obama will finish "evolving" on gay marriage before November is about as slim as the winning margin he or Mitt Romney can assume in this horserace.

The perennial debate over the president's views on the subject was rekindled when Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday that he was "absolutely comfortable'' with same-sex marriage. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made similar remarks on Monday.

(RELATED: White House Scrambling on Biden's Same-Sex Marriage Remarks)

Pressed to explain the apparent discrepancies between the position of the president and his Cabinet members, White House Secretary Jay Carney said Monday that he had "no update on the president's personal views.'' Indeed, Obama's groundbreaking record on gay rights and friendly public remarks suggest he personally accepted same-sex marriage long ago. Though Obama described himself in Dec. 2010 as "evolving,'' it's hard to see his unwillingness to declare his support for gay marriage as anything other than political expedience.

For evidence look no further than  North Carolina, poised Tuesday to join the majority of states with constitutional bans on gay marriage. One of nine swing states where Obama's re-election campaign began a major advertising campaign on Monday, North Carolina looms as one of the most challenging. Obama carried the state by less than 15,000 votes in 2008, and Democrats chose it to host the party's nominating convention in 2012.

"He won here by such a narrow margin that almost anything could make the difference'' said longtime Democratic strategist Gary Pearce, who is based in Raleigh. "I don't blame him for being cautious. The country is also evolving and he doesn't want to get there too early.''

National polls suggest only a narrow majority of Americans support gay marriage. Many of the tossup states Obama needs to win a second term, including Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, have passed laws or constitutional bans against same-sex marriage. In another battleground state, Iowa voters in 2010 ousted three Supreme Court justices who had legalized gay marriage the previous year.

A big reason the issue is tricky for Obama is that two of the constituencies pivotal to his 2008 victory "“ young voters and African-Americans -- are at odds. While gay rights advocates frame marriage as a civil rights issue, many churchgoing African-Americans approach it in a religious context. In North Carolina for example, an Elon University Poll in February found only 35 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 support a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Among black voters, the percentage supporting the ban jumped to 46 percent.

The president's campaign put out a statement in March saying he did not support the ballot measure, but he has not personally addressed it.

"It's a gamble,'' said Mileah Kroner, Elon University assistant professor of political science. "On one hand, him coming out for gay marriage could infuse the base and get young people excited, which could be in his favor. Then again, it could turn off older people, who he didn't do particularly well with in the last election. Same with black voters, who tend to be evangelical. It's a political calculation.''

Obama's hesitation on gay marriage creates crosscurrents in the gay community. His record, most notably lifting the ban against openly gay soldiers in the military, is solid. Saying he backs same-sex marriage would be a symbolic victory, but it would not have any practical implications since marriage rights are conferred by states.

"There is no doubt that this president has done more for us than any other president combined in the history of our country,'' said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights advocacy group. "We've largely been in the wilderness from a federal law and policy perspective, and this president, very courageously and astutely, has embraced us.''

He added: "It is our job to continue pushing the president to make further advances for our community, but we also remember that we are a pushing a friend. "˜'

Just last month, the White House said it was not issuing an executive order that would ban federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Once again, Obama was testing the loyalty of the gay community, which has overwhelmingly supported him and is unlikely to flock to Romney, who backs a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Obama's senior campaign advisor, David Axelrod, ducked questions Monday about the apparent daylight between Biden and Obama on gay marriage, pivoting instead to, "There couldn't be a starker contrast on this issue than with Gov. Romney.'' That Axelrod chose to emphasize the differences with the presumptive Republican nominee instead of explaining the president's nuanced position was another tell-tale sign that the politics of gay marriage are at work.

Sophie Quinton contributed to this report. contributed to this article