Barack Obama gambles on gay marriage

Just perhaps, Gamblers Anonymous should make some discreet inquiries at the White House. There may be a membership opportunity.

With his re-election already hanging on the thin thread of an improved economy, Barack Obama on Wednesday recast the presidential contest along starker, social terms with an abrupt declaration of his support for gay marriage.

The man who only a week ago had basked in his decision to send boots into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden appeared slightly less sure of himself when explaining his latest roll of the dice.

“I have hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” Obama said in the ABC News interview as he laid out the scope of his gamble. “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people the word ‘marriage’ was something that invokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth.”

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Obama’s hand was forced by Vice President Joe Biden, who on Sunday had declared, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” that he was “absolutely comfortable” with the idea of gay marriage — a bridge that his boss had yet to cross. The Washington Post helpfully pointed out a looming fracture within the president’s camp: One in six of Obama’s fundraising “bundlers” is gay.

At bottom, the president is betting that he’s put himself only slightly ahead of a cultural curve in America. On Monday, the latest Gallup Poll on the topic declared that 50 percent of Americans “believe same-sex marriages should be recognized by law as valid.” It was only the second time in the poll’s history that gay marriage had received a majority endorsement.

Obama’s formula for survival: Hope that increased enthusiasm among gays in general and young voters in particular outweighs renewed enmity among social conservatives. And pray that African-Americans, among the most fervent opponents of gay marriage, hang with you.

It is a particularly relevant question in Georgia and the rest of the South, where political careers are made and broken based on black voter turnout.

Obama’s decision is likely to complicate matters for John Barrow, the sole surviving white Democrat from the Deep South in Congress, and Sanford Bishop, the Albany Democrat who was nearly defeated in 2010.

Likewise, the president’s decision could prove uncomfortable for dedicated Obama supporter Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed — whose opposition to gay marriage during his 2009 race became a sensitive topic in an extremely close contest. Reed, who stands for re-election in 2013, declined to comment Wednesday.

Obama made his call on gay marriage only one day after 61 percent of voters in North Carolina adopted the latest state ban on same-sex unions. (Georgia passed a similar constitutional ban in 2004.)

But North Carolina is a state the president would dearly like in his electoral column this November and where Democrats will gather in September. So his unspoken rebuke of the vote — he did not mention it in the interview — came as a surprise, especially to many African-Americans.

On Wednesday, in the first hour after the news broke, Edward O. DuBose’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing. The president of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, and a minister at Peaceful Holiness Church in Columbus, heard from many who were upset with Obama.

DuBose said he personally remains against same-sex marriage, but he told callers to look at the larger picture when choosing between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.

“My concern is that [Obama’s decision on gay marriage] would create a level of division in the black community and we would lose sight of what is really affecting us,” DuBose said. “This strategy is not going to turn people who are strictly Democrat for Romney. What it does is, it keeps them home. And that is even more dangerous than anything else.”

Whether because of the suddenness of Obama’s decision, or because of the new ground it plowed, reaction from African-American leaders in Georgia came slowly in the hours after the president’s interview.

Among the first to comment was U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, already an advocate of gay marriage. “The president’s growth reflects the growth of many Americans on this issue,” he said. “I am glad to see more Americans, including President Obama, empathize with the struggles of same-sex couples and express willingness in state after state to give their unions the same legal rights as other married couples.”

But if African-American Democrats were tentative Wednesday, so were Republicans — another sign that gay marriage has become shifting, uncertain ground.

In Denver, Romney used the issue to emphasize his consistency — a matter of some concern to conservatives. “My position is the same on gay marriage as it’s been well, from the beginning, and that is that marriage is a relation between a man and a woman,” he said.

Ralph Reed, the head of the Georgia-based Faith and Freedom Coalition, preferred to note that Obama was straying from the topic of jobs.

“At a time of high unemployment and severe economic distress, President Obama chose the week he launched his re-election campaign to flip-flop on same-sex marriage,” Reed said. “It is certain to fuel a record turnout of voters of faith to the polls this November.”

This may be so. But Obama is betting that Reed’s followers — and social conservatives in general — are already as angry as they’re going to get. Some Republicans agree.

Sadie Fields, as head of the Georgia Christian Alliance, spearheaded the 2004 referendum in Georgia that inserted the ban on gay marriage into the state constitution. She has since retired from politics.

Ultimately, she thinks, Obama has merely confirmed in public what she and other conservative Christians suspected the president thought in private. “There certainly was no surprise,” she said.

Staff writers Daniel Malloy and Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this article.

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- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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[...] Kasim Reed, who opposed gay marriage in his 2009 campaign had no comment, while Ralph Reed said, ““At a time of high unemployment and severe economic distress, [...]