WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's ongoing evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage has ceased being only a topic of friction between him and the gay-rights community, becoming, in the dawn of the general election campaign, an early test of political character.
On Monday, after Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan both said they believed gay couples deserved the same rights as heterosexuals, the Obama presidential campaign and the White House were asked to explain why the president was unwilling to make a similar statement. Obama aides trotted out the usual responses: he had made more advances on gay rights than anyone who previously held his office, he opposed measures that discriminated on basis of sexual orientation and he would push for more progress well into his second term.
"When you say gay and lesbian voters have no place else to go, I find that completely wrong," Stephanie Cutter, the campaign's deputy communications director, told MSNBC. "There are significant accomplishments in this administration to ensuring equality for everybody."
Cutter's statement had the benefit of truth. But with two prominent administration officials now further along on the evolutionary spectrum than the president they serve, patience is wearing thinner than before.
"What I think you are seeing now is the extent to which the White House miscalculated that they can continue to give a non-answer on what is one of the major issues of our day," said Richard Socarides, a former aide to President Bill Clinton and senior White House adviser on gay rights. "You can evolve for a time, but they have stretched this out 18 months now."
There was, as Socarides noted, a different feeling to Monday's events. Long over is the debate over whether Obama philosophically supports the idea of marriage equality; few observers now sincerely believe that he has a moral objection to it. And while the political world had fun for a while wondering when and where he would formally state his support, the guessing games have grown old for many. Instead, the preoccupation among LGBT activists and Democrats alike is now whether Obama is causing damage to his own brand.
"He is never going to be anti-gay enough to satisfy those who are anti-gay. But now he is managing to fall short of those who want him to be with them on marriage," said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry. "Whichever it is, it is clear that they have little to gain by dragging out the president's evolution ... by contrast, they do have a lot to gain by speaking out clearly."
Evidence was abundant on Monday that the White House's dance around the gay marriage issue had become a touch too cute. Reporters at Press Secretary Jay Carney's daily briefing peppered him with questions on Biden's statement, made on "Meet the Press" Sunday, that he was comfortable with gay marriage and believed same-sex couples were "entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties."
"Why not just come out and say it, and let voters decide? It seems cynical to hide this until after the election," said ABC's Jake Tapper.
In response, Carney insisted that no daylight existed between Obama and Biden on the issue. "There is a little bit of an overreaction here," he said.
Minutes later, appearing on MSNBC, the head of the Republican National Committee accused the president of hedging, trying to avoid offending socially conservative Democrats while signaling something altogether different to his progressive base.
"The president wants to be able to play both sides of this issue," said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. "He doesn't want to fully embrace what his vice president is saying. But he wants the benefit of what the vice president is saying. And to me, this is what I think this country has had enough of."
Priebus would go on to re-affirm the Republican Party's opposition to gay marriage, as would presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, in an interview with a local Cleveland television station later in the day. But it's not every day that the RNC chair and gay-rights advocates share the same conceptual criticism of the president's handling of a major social issue. And for the White House and the campaign, the tag-team critique created a sharp headache.
Cutter, Carney and other advisers to the president continued to insist on Monday that they had no further update on the state of his evolution. In private, however, aides and consultants to the campaign elaborated a bit on why his stance hadn't budged.
The country may, indeed, be moving towards greater acceptance of marriage equality, they noted. But that isn't necessarily true in key swing states. A ballot initiative in North Carolina that would ban recognition of any marriage that is not between a man and a woman is expected to pass Tuesday by a healthy margin. Obama has stated his opposition to that measure, but to go a step further would be to take a major gamble in a critical state.
"The question is, is there a risk?" said one prominent Democratic Party official. "It is not nationwide [polling] we are talking about. We are talking about Virginia, North Carolina and other swing states, and we are talking about, would Karl Rove and his team stoop to using horribly grotesque and hateful tactics ... and would that peel off 10,000 votes?"
With 4.3 million votes cast in North Carolina during the 2008 presidential election, Obama beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 14,000.
"We know the right wing is extremely good at hammering on a distraction to avoid focusing on the issues. So my guess is that's the biggest downside," said Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist and longtime LGBT advocate. "But overriding that ought to be that the president should do what he feels. And if people perceive that he is not doing what he feels, that has more potential for harm than anything else."
So far, there has been little harm. The repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the instruction for the Department of Justice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act and new rights for gay couples granted via law and executive order have all endeared the president to the LGBT community. That Romney donated money, through his political action committee, to a campaign to overturn a law legalizing gay marriage in California has boosted Obama even further.
“I’m happy to say we’re seeing strong LGBT support: the folks we can always count on are stepping up, as usual; many who’ve held back until recently have come through in a big way; and here and there we find folks totally new to political giving who see what’s at stake -– the choice in this election is so stark –- and hit it out of the ballpark," Andy Tobias, another prominent LGBT activist and the DNC's treasurer, emailed The Huffington Post. "I recently had a gay business consultant who’d never been to one of our fundraisers give me $75,800 based on nothing more than an email introduction."
But with the issue shifting toward a referendum on the president's character, delaying his evolution may be politically costly, not safe.
"Taking a position on tough issues is difficult, but that's what we expect presidents to do," said Socarides. "That's the whole point."