On the surface, President Barack Obama's decision to embrace same-sex marriage looked like a rush to the altar – a move prompted by his Vice-President's apparently unscripted support of the notion and designed to appeal to an important liberal constituency in the middle of what will almost certainly be a very close election.
But appearances are often deceiving, and in truth Mr. Obama has been moving in this direction for some time. Mr. Obama's history, his instincts, his record, his personal identity and – perhaps most of all – the identity of his closest friends, associates and advisers made this decision almost inevitable even if the choreography of the announcement was less than enviable.
At the heart of the Obama character is an appreciation for the outsider, a celebration of diversity and a dedication to removing ancient prejudices, practices and taboos. Indeed, Mr. Obama's entire life story can be encapsulated in those elements, for as a man of mixed race embracing his black identity he has an especially keen sense of the barriers – legal, cultural and social – to those outside the mainstream. And if his political ideology can be distilled to one idea, it might be his determination to widen the stream coursing through American life.
Almost every commentator and analyst remarked immediately on the risks involved.
The President's decision came the very week when the ultimate bipartisan figure, Richard G. Lugar, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate and a foreign-policy figure revered globally much the way Lester B. Pearson was in his time, was soundly repudiated in a primary in Indiana (a state Mr. Obama carried, to broad surprise, four years ago) and when a ban on gay marriage was approved in North Carolina (another unlikely Obama state in 2008 – and the site of this summer's Democratic National Convention).
Mr. Obama and his advisers surely understood that the President was taking a gamble, if for no other reason than his initiative, and the swift opposition it raised from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, gave conservatives wary of the putative Republican nominee a pretext for moving into his camp. But Mr. Romney, a onetime supporter of gay rights if not of gay marriage itself, is uncomfortable speaking about social issues and is unlikely to put the issue at the top of his priorities as he prepares for his own nominating convention and the general election to follow.
Indeed, the voting group that may be most suspicious, even antagonistic, toward Mr. Obama's position is the one least likely to defect from his cause in the fall: black voters. He's safe with them, and he's already signalled that he wants to tilt his appeal away from another skeptical group that has for two generations been central to Democratic presidential coalitions: blue-collar workers.
All presidential campaigns are based on calculations of geography and demography.
First, the geography. It is hard to see how the President's announcement helps him in the swing states where the autumn battle will be fought. He very likely won't carry several of the states he took in 2008 – Indiana is beyond his reach now, and North Carolina signalled this week the direction it will take in an election that will be a referendum on a President who supports gay marriage. He was a long shot there anyhow; the Republicans have carried the state in nine of the past 11 elections.
But there is hope for him in the demography. He wants to re-energize the youth vote that was so important in catapulting him to power four years ago, and he knows that this is a peculiarity for them: an issue that, in their minds, isn't an issue. Indeed, for that voting group, he may be late to the party. He is also courting the vote of liberal and working women and of male professionals outside the financial sector, and Team Obama knows that the President's position is not discomfiting to them.
So it's very possible that the gay-marriage initiative by itself will mobilize and motivate some voters but not substantially change the political calculus. The killing of Osama bin Laden had little lasting domestic political effect. The President's willingness to support the slaying of the ban against gay marriage may be little different.