Having succeeded at repealing the military's ban on openly gay service-members, President Barack Obama and Democrats are renewing efforts to woo gay voters, playing up the repeal of “don't ask don't tell” and signaling an openness to the subject of gay marriage.
Such efforts are necessary given some changes in the electorate generally and among gay voters specifically. In the 2010 election, exit polls showed that nearly one-third (31 percent) of gay voters went Republican, up from 24 percent who did so in 2008.
While top Democrats have not publicly expressed concern about the trend, their public relations initiatives during the recently concluded lame-duck session indicate that they are trying to patch things up.
First on the list was pushing for a repeal of “don't ask don't tell”, a policy implemented in 1993 during the Clinton Administration which allowed homosexuals and bisexuals to serve in the military provided they did not disclose their sexual orientation. After promising to do away with the policy as a candidate, Obama did very little to reverse it, even defending it in federal court—a move which sparked a number of White House protests by gay activists against the president.
After focusing almost exclusively pushing an unpopular medical insurance through Congress, a massive spending bill intended to boost the economy, and an arcane financial regulation bill, the administration then turned its focus to persuading Congress to overturn the don't ask don't tell policy. It succeeded in its efforts thanks to strong support from the soon-to-shrink Democratic members in both houses and also to several Republicans, particularly Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) who co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill that became law.
Almost as soon as the ink from Obama's pen from signing the repeal was dry, Democrats launched an initiative to tout their effectiveness to gay voters. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, electoral arm of the Senate Democrats, sent out a fund-raising appeal to “celebrate the repeal” by purchasing photographs of the president commemorating the “monumental” occasion for $25 or $50.
Obama has also been a part of such outreach efforts. After avoiding the gay press since being elected, Obama then granted an interview with The Advocate, a magazine targeting gays and lesbians in which he said he was “incredibly proud” of overturning don't ask don't tell and would see to it that new law would be implemented “in a matter of months.”
The president also made a slight feint in the direction of supporting gay marriage, saying that his position on the matter was “evolving” and that although he has long favored civil union laws which grant full marriage benefits to gay couples, he might be open to changing that position.
“I've wrestled with the fact that marriage traditionally has had a different connotation,” he told the Advocate's Kerry Eleveld. “But I also have a lot of very close friends who are married gay or lesbian couples. And squaring that circle is something that I have not done yet.”
Obama stopped short of saying that he would support gay marriage in the future but his comments this week went further than he had in 2008 when he urged gay marriage advocates to persuade the public to their cause than relying on him to do it.
Still, Obama seems to be walking a fine line on the issue since no public poll has ever shown majority support for gay marriage. His use of an “evolving” position is significant in a polling context, however.
In a survey released earlier this year by ABC News and the Washington Post, 66 percent of Americans said they support civil unions, up from 45 percent in 2006. A majority of conservatives support them as well.
Public disapproval of gay marriage has been much more consistent. The same ABC-Post poll indicated that 47 percent of Americans believe they should be legalized, down slightly but within the margin of error from 2009 when 49 percent of respondents said they supported gay marriage.
Should public opinion begin to shift on the issue—and it likely will as today's younger voters, most of whom support gay marriage, begin to displace the older voters who do not—it's likely that Obama will begin to shift his position as well. Until that happens, gay marriage is likely to remain an issue on which Democratic politicians maintain their own policy of don't ask don't tell.