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Christopher Arterton
Christopher Arterton
F. Christopher Arterton is a professor of political management at The George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM).
Q&A: Obama's shift on same-sex marriage
Will the US president's statement that he supports same-sex unions affect his chances for re-election?
Last Modified: 11 May 2012 20:54
US President Barack Obama recently came out in support of same-sex marriage [AFP]


In what is being hailed as a historic move, US President Barack Obama has endorsed same-sex marriage for the first time.

Obama, who is seeking re-election in November, voiced his support for same-sex unions in an interview with ABC's Robin Roberts on Wednesday.

"I've just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," Obama said.

 Obama steps into gay marriage rift as election looms

He added that he had previously "hesitated" to support the idea because he was "sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word marriage was something that invokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs".

The move comes after Vice President Joe Biden expressed he was in favour of gay unions on a talk show on Sunday.

According to the Pew Research Centre, over the past eight years the US public has become less opposed to allowing same-sex couples to tie the knot. Polls show 47 per cent in favour of same-sex marriage, with 43 per cent opposed.

With the presidential elections approaching rapidly, media pundits are divided over how the move will affect Obama's chances of winning a second term in the White House.

Al Jazeera's Sophie Sportiche spoke with Dr F Christopher Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University, about how Obama's declaration may influence the upcoming presidential campaign, and whether it will hurt Obama's chances for re-election.

Sophie Sportiche: Do you think Obama decided to come out in favour of same-sex marriage because of pressure within the party, or because of the proximity of the election?

Christopher Arterton: They probably calculated that this was something that they would have to do before the election, that there would be increased pressure the longer they delayed. It was important, I think, to get it done early in the spring, so that it will amplify the enthusiasm of the gay and bisexual communities and produce more support for [Obama] in the fall.

The other thing about timing that I thought was very interesting - and perhaps untoward - was that they did it the day after the North Carolina vote [on an amendment banning same-sex marriage], which seemed, in some ways, to be a kind of slap in the face of North Carolina citizens that voted on that issue.

And of course, North Carolina is one of the states that surprisingly Obama won in 2008, and might be a pivotal state in 2012 … From the point of view of that, it was very awkward timing.

SS: There's been a lot of speculation that Obama's declaration was forced by Biden recently coming out in support of same-sex marriage. Do you think there's any merit to those claims?

CA: Well, I actually think that there's some evidence floating around - and even people on Biden's staff - who think that in fact this was pre-arranged, that Biden's statement was a trial balloon to see how vociferous would be some of the complaints that might come about. And since there was not a terrible outcry, they decided that they were free to go ahead with the announcement.

SS: Do you think that Obama's support of same-sex marriage will have an effect on the election in November?

CA: I think that it will increase the enthusiasm of people who are directly affected by it - that is, the gay, lesbian and bisexual community - and it will dissipate in terms of its impact on the general electorate by the time we get around to November.

I think that people who are ardent opponents of same-sex marriage are not going to vote for Obama anyway. There's just an alignment there, with the possible and interesting exception of the African American community, which has been largely on the side of supporting marriage between a man and a woman and against same-sex marriage.

And there's a community in which Obama can have a decisive impact, I think, on people's rethinking that issue.

SS: Does Obama risk losing votes among African Americans?

CA: I think there is no way in the world that Obama's hold on the African American community will weaken or be weakened by this … There is a potential role here for leadership, in that, by making this statement, Obama might in fact change some opinions, which is a very hard thing to do in American politics, to change people's point of view. So I think that, given people's very strong support for Obama among the African American community, I think that is an instance in which he could have an impact on social change.

SS: What do you see as the major political risks - if any - of this declaration?

CA: I think the main political risk is the possibility of energising the right-wing, the conservative Christian fundamental community.

But as I say, I think that's a community that is already highly mobilised against Obama and not likely to be terribly persuaded one way or another by this change. So I don't see the downside risk as being substantial. I see the upside possibilities of mobilising a community that was active in 2008 for Obama, but has been largely disappointed by his failure to take a firm stand. I think that they now will fall in line and be much more enthusiastic about re-electing him than they would be otherwise.

SS: What effect will this have on swing states?

CA: I think that there might be some swing states where it might make a difference. Let's take a look at the state of Virginia, which has been won by Republicans traditionally for a long time but was won by Obama in 2008. But of course Virginia is the home of [Moral Majority founder] Jerry Falwell and a very substantial community of people who are fundamental Christians.

There may be a downside risk that they would mobilise a very narrow group of people in a very swing state like Virginia. I don't see that as true of many of the other swing states, which tend to be in the upper northwest. The other exception that occurs to me would be a state like Iowa or Missouri, which has had a very strong traditional religious fundamental right.

SS: The election aside, what effects could Obama's declaration have?

CA: There are certainly some policies that the federal government can enact, and I would say that the other thing to be very mindful of is the presidency is a very pronounced bully pulpit to use - Theodore Roosevelt's words - and does exert some leadership over time … And so I think having the president of the United States come out for that among a limited group of people may in fact cause them to pause and rethink this issue.

But … I would say that it's important to bear in mind that over time, the drift has essentially been toward a greater acceptance of same-sex marriage.

SS: To what extent do you think that Mitt Romney will try to capitalise on Obama's declaration?

CA: I have a suspicion - and at this point it's only a suspicion - that he would be inclined to do that more surreptitiously through surrogates. So he might allow the evangelical community to begin to talk about this issue kind of sub rosa, if you will, in churches on Sunday morning in sermons, rather than make it a big open partisan fight.

And I think that one of the reasons why I say that is I think there is the potential for a downside for Romney if this becomes too much of a partisan fight between him and Obama directly. So I think he's much more likely to be coy and to allow some of his supporters to do that work for him.

SS: Why don't you think Romney would do this openly?

CA: Bill Clinton gave Obama a bit of advice recently, which was: Don't attack Romney as a flip-flopper. What you really need to do is to push him into the extreme corner and not let him get out of some of the statements that he made during the Republican primaries. So don't let him reset the Etch-a-Sketch, if you will. Keep him in that corner.

And so I think the downside for Romney doing this himself and visibly and publicly, is that it begins to reinforce his image about being on the extreme of American politics, and allows the Obama people to keep him in that box …

There is a group in the middle that really wants a kind of civil discourse and wants US politicians to not be at each other's throat. And I thought it was interesting that if you think about this announcement, it wasn't a speech, it wasn't from the Oval Office, it was a sit-down with a journalist, and it was very low-key in response to a question that obviously he knew was going to come up - or even had been planted …

I think that for the middle segment, which is where the battleground is going to be, they prefer that kind of statement rather than a virulent okay, it's now time to go for same-sex marriage vehemently, to propose a constitutional amendment or to introduce legislation to totally gut the Defence of Marriage Act. And so to really make a fight out of this on either side, I think, is not in the interests of the group that they're fighting over.

F Christopher 'Chris' Arterton is a professor of Political Management at The George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM).


The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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