NEW YORK CITY -- President Barack Obama did not reverse course and endorse the right of gay couples to marry during a high-profile LGBT fundraising event Thursday night.
He expressed support for the idea that the state of New York should have the power to codify marriage for same-sex couples. But he did not personally endorse the pending New York bill -- which is nearing passage in the statehouse -- or same-sex marriage itself.
The crowd of 600-plus attendees didn't jeer Obama's caution ... that much. Rather, cordial applause and a shared sense of accomplishment seemed to be the order of the night at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan.
Obama is, objectively, the most influential president LGBT citizens have ever had. And while his administration has experienced no shortage of LGBT-related tensions -- whether in private meetings or from activists handcuffed to the White House gates -- Thursday night was spent discussing past accomplishments and hinting at future breakthroughs.
"Yes we have more work today. Yes we have more progress to make. Yes I expect continued impatience with me on occasion," said the president. "With your help, if you keep up the fight, if you will devote your time and your energies to this campaign one more time, I promise you we will write another chapter in that story."
"We are going to lead a new generation to a brighter future," he concluded. "And I will be standing there right there with you."
In a 25-minute address before both grey-bearded and baby-faced donors and activists, Obama praised vocal LGBT activism and offered his ear in return. He ran through his list of achievements -- extending hospital visitation rights to gay couples, a comprehensive national AIDS strategy, the ending of Don't Ask Don't Tell, to name a few -- and pledged a commitment to a " simple American value, the notion that "we are all created equal."
But when it came to the pressing substantive matter of the day -- marriage equality -- Obama's speech wasn't simple at all. Instead, it veered into the vagaries of federalism, the frustrations of democracies and the pulls and pushes of the public debate.
"Right now, I understand, there is a little debate going on here in New York," he said, as the crowd muted their cheers and chatter in anticipation. "Under the leadership of Governor [Andrew] Cuomo, with the support of Democrats and Republicans, New York is doing exactly what democracies are supposed to do. There is debate and deliberation about what it means here in New York to treat people fairly in the eyes of the law. That is the power of our democratic system. It is not always pretty there are setbacks there are frustrations. But in grappling with tough and at time emotional issues in the legislatures and the courts and the ballot box and, yes, around the dinner table and the office hallways -- sometimes even in the Oval Office -- slowly but surely we find a way forward. That is how we will achieve change that is lasting. Change that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible."
It was not a deviation from the usual script. Nor was it the "fierce urgency of now" that Obama had often blared on the 2008 campaign trail. But, save a few hecklers, it would suffice for the night.
"Everyone in the room would have been thrilled if he had come out for marriage equality," said Sarah Holland, an attendee. "I think for some people it rang hollow for him to be talking about equality and not going the full distance.
"At the same time," she added, "people in that room are politically astute."
Holland said Obama was the president who had made the most impact in her lifetime. "I think he really believes in equality," she said.
That the president could earn plaudits even while falling short on the issue was not a surprise. The crowd at the Sheraton may have included a few vocal, disappointed activists, but the vast majority of attendees didn't pay top dollar (tickets started at $1,250) to heckle.
"He has done a lot," said Andrew Rabenstein, another attendee. "A lot of it is a matter of illustrating what he has done in good messaging. ... As every constituent group, we want 100 percent of what we can get. But getting 70 to 80 percent is better than anyone else has gotten. Look at the Hispanic groups, which are still waiting for a breakthrough on immigration reform."
It is the notion that his foot-dragging on marriage is explained by political and not personal motivations that has allowed Obama to keep his relationship with the LGBT crowd from fraying. Virtually everyone in Thursday's crowd assumed the president privately embraces the notion that same-sex couples deserve federal benefits. The reoccurring prediction is that he will act on that supposition in his second term.
"I don't think he will stick his neck out this close to the election," said Lauree Feldman, another gala attendee. "Once he gets re-elected, he will drive that train as fast as he wants."
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