WASHINGTON — Talk about timing.
President Barack Obama scheduled a fundraiser in New York City on Thursday for gay supporters – his first as president – just as the state Legislature maneuvered toward of a historic vote legalizing gay marriage. Although the outcome was uncertain, the vote could occur hours before Obama's event.
Whatever the result, there's a spotlight on Obama's failure to endorse gay marriage.
Activists say Obama got off to a slow start on their priority issues. But he won many over by repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military and by instructing the Justice Department to stop defending in court a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
But he endorses civil unions, not marriages, for gay and lesbian couples. He says his views on the issue are evolving, as are the country's.
White House officials say not to expect any new stance from Obama at the Thursday evening event, where as many as 600 guests were paying up to $35,800 each to attend.
The developments in Albany, the state capital, make it likely that Obama will have to address the issue before a roomful of supporters described by the Democratic National Committee as "allies of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community." It was to be his first fundraiser geared specifically toward the gay community.
New York would become the sixth and largest state to legalize same-sex marriage.
"I do not think that he is going to articulate a new position on Thursday, but I do think that the timing of what we think will be a big win in New York ... does up the pressure on him to do something and might just create enough of a political magic moment to bring about a surprise," said Richard Socarides, head of the advocacy group EqualityMatters. The longtime gay rights advocate once advised President Bill Clinton.
If Obama were to endorse gay marriage, it would give a jolt of enthusiasm to his progressive base and perhaps unlock additional fundraising dollars from the well-heeled gay community. It's not clear it would get him too many additional votes in 2012, though, because the Republican field's general opposition to gay rights gives activists no alternative to Obama.
At the same time, supporting gay marriage could alienate some religious voters the politically cautious White House might still hope to win over for Obama's re-election campaign.
Obama has said decisions on marriage should be left up to the states and has indicated support in the past for states allowing gay people to marry. As a presidential candidate, he even went so far as to congratulate gay couples in California who married during the short period when gay marriage was legal in that state before voters shut it down.
The president signed a questionnaire in 1996 as a candidate for Illinois state Senate saying he supported gay marriage, something the White House hasn't fully explained.
In a December news conference where he made his most recent public comments on gay marriage, Obama talked about having friends in gay and lesbian relationships.
"My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this," he said. "My baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have. And I think that's the right thing to do. But I recognize that from their perspective it is not enough, and I think (it) is something that we're going to continue to debate, and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward."
For some gay supporters, Obama's nuanced stance is both a source of frustration. It smacks of political calculation and of hope, because most believe he will end up endorsing gay marriage.
"It's embarrassing to watch almost all of the absurd rhetoric around this issue that's coming out of the White House," said David Mixner, a longtime activist. "You're either for it or you're against it. You've got all the facts. Everybody's given you time to evolve. ... Enough already."
Public sentiment is marching decisively in the direction of supporting gay marriage. Depending on the poll, people are now about evenly split or narrowly in favor.
"There's been a noticeable shift the last couple of years," said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. In March, the center found that 45 percent of those surveyed favored gay marriage and 46 percent opposed it. That was the first time that the survey found an essentially even split instead of majority opposition.
"There's still a hard core of intense opposition, but the broader public is becoming more supportive of gay marriage," Doherty said.
That's something the president has noted, telling liberal bloggers last October that "it's pretty clear where the trend lines are going."
The question is when, how, and if the president goes there, too.