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As Rev. Peg Esperanza looks on, Gary Seronko and Curtis Rathmeier celebrate their marriage on the steps of the Polk County Administration Building in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/Scott Olson/Getty Images)
As Rev. Peg Esperanza looks on, Gary Seronko and Curtis Rathmeier celebrate their marriage on the steps of the Polk County Administration Building in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On gay rights, Obama dithering less Add to ...

Gay rights advocates have been of a mixed mind about Barack Obama. They liked that he gave a shout out to the gay community in his victory speech - surely a first for a president-elect. But they soon came to see him as more of a reluctant defender of their cause than its true champion.

With his administration's surprise decision to stop standing up for the Defense of Marriage Act in court - potentially clearing the way for federal recognition of same-sex marriage - the President has moved to dispel the gay community's nagging doubts about his willingness to fight on its behalf.

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That will come in handy for him on the road to 2012.

Mr. Obama has already had a brutal reminder of what happens when the party base sits on its hands. In November's midterm elections, his Democrats lost 63 seats in the House of Representatives and six in Senate, largely because the Republican base was stoked while his own brooded.

Nowhere was that ambivalence stronger than among gay rights advocates. Unhappy with the President's perceived foot-dragging on their priorities - including the promised repeal of the U.S. military's ban on gays serving openly - some called for a boycott on donations to Democrats.

John Aravosis, an influential blogger for gay rights, raised $43,000 (U.S.) for Mr. Obama in 2008. But by last fall, he was insisting he wouldn't do it again "unless some miracle happens."

Whether or not December's move by Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" qualifies as a Vatican-worthy miracle, it certainly defied the conventional wisdom according to which no Republican senator would support lifting the ban as long as U.S. troops were at war. In fact, eight did.

Did the Republican base rise up in anger? Hardly. Though the repeal has yet to be implemented, there has been no meaningful backlash either within the GOP or among American voters.

This may have had a liberating effect on the Obama administration. Fearful of being depicted by Republicans as too liberal, Mr. Obama had held himself in check, particularly when it comes to advancing gay rights. His move on Wednesday to disown the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) may be sign of his desire to embrace liberal causes with more enthusiasm.

"I don't see this as a bare cynical political move… I think it does reflect [Mr. Obama's]personal view," said Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a noted opponent of same-sex marriage. "But it's done at such a time and in such a way as to shore up an important part of the [Democratic]base."

It is rare for an administration to refuse to defend laws passed by Congress. But Attorney-General Eric Holder, in outlining the decision to do so, went so far as to declare DOMA "unconstitutional."

The law, enacted by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton in 1996, defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman. Under it, the U.S. government has denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, even in the seven states where their marriages are legally recognized.

Two major challenges to DOMA are currently making their way through the federal courts, on their way to the Supreme Court. Until now, Department of Justice lawyers have argued the federal case for upholding DOMA. Suddenly, that will stop.

"This was pretty much the number-one ask" of gay rights advocates, Equality Matters president Richard Socarides told Politico. "There was a whole lot of debate about how much credit [Mr. Obama]deserved and [whether he]did or didn't fight for repeal [of "don't ask, don't tell"] On this, there's no question. He's showing bold, decisive leadership."

He's also sowing political mischief. With the administration bowing out, Republican leaders in Congress will be under pressure from their base to step into the breach to defend DOMA in court. This could inflame divisions within the party between hardline social conservatives and those calling for a "truce" in the "culture wars" to focus GOP energies on economic issues.

White House press secretary Jay Carney was quick to draw a distinction between the administration's judgment regarding the constitutionality of DOMA and Mr. Obama's personal views on same-sex marriage. While he favours civil unions for gays and lesbians, the President has opposed gay marriage.

"My feelings about this are constantly evolving," Mr. Obama conceded in December. "But I recognize that from [advocates']perspective it is not enough and I think is something that we're going to continue to debate and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward."

Perhaps even fast enough for an ultimate evolution by November, 2012.

 

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