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Obama may face trouble with gays after same-sex ruling

By Ed Hornick, CNN
President Obama has said he supports civil unions for same-sex couples but opposes same-sex marriage.
President Obama has said he supports civil unions for same-sex couples but opposes same-sex marriage.
  • Judge has ruled that California's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional
  • President Obama doesn't back same-sex marriage but believes in civil unions, equal benefits
  • Gay and lesbian activists and bloggers say White House is trying to have it both ways
  • They criticize what they call Obama's lukewarm response to last week's ruling

Washington (CNN) -- Many gays and lesbians supported Barack Obama at the polls in 2008, and they've backed him once he took office. But one topic in particular has created a firestorm among the vocal constituency historically aligned with the Democratic Party.

Gay activists and bloggers and others unleashed a wave of criticism against Obama after a federal judge on Wednesday ruled California's Proposition 8 -- which outlawed same-sex marriage -- unconstitutional.

The reasoning behind the criticism, they said, is a lukewarm response from the White House on the historic ruling -- and Obama's stance against same-sex marriage.

What's the message?

"A key voting bloc for Democrats celebrates an important civil rights victory, and the White House heralds the occasion by coupling its enthusiasm for the victory with a reminder that it opposes the actual civil right that's at stake," said Jason Linkins of the liberal blog Huffington Post, referring to statements made by the White House in the wake of last week's ruling.

The White House said after the decision, "The president has spoken out in opposition to Proposition 8 because it is divisive and discriminatory. He will continue to promote equality for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] Americans."

White House senior adviser David Axelrod told MSNBC that while the president opposes same-sex marriage he "supports equality for gay and lesbian couples and benefits and other issues. ... He does believe that marriage is an issue for the states. And he did oppose Proposition 8."

Critics immediately asked the question: So Obama opposes same-sex marriage, even though he was against Proposition 8 and thought that it was discriminatory?

"The whole point of this ruling is to contradict [Axelrod's] statement," wrote Andrew Sullivan, a gay blogger on The Atlantic's website. "If the president does not support my right to marry, then he does not support my equality, according to the ruling."

Video: Proposition 8 debate rages on
Video: Same-sex marriage ban overturned

Sullivan, a conservative who has been relatively supportive of Obama, then asked: "So which is it, Mr President? Are you really for equality or not?"

Candy Crowley, CNN chief political correspondent, said Obama's "certainly dancing on the head of a pin" on the issue. The White House "explained it as saying they don't like constitutional changes that single out a certain group," she said.

Campaign season woes

The criticism on this controversial issue is something the White House simply does not want to deal with ahead of the midterm elections, a Democratic strategist said.

"Obama realizes the vast majority of the country, particularly the red states in the middle, have a lot of competitive congressional races," said strategist Liz Chadderdon. "This is just simply not the time ahead of a midterm election to really bring this issue up again. It's a tough issue for Democrats and the White House."

Same-sex marriage is something Republicans have used in the past to unseat Democrats -- especially seen in the 2004 presidential election when the very topic, some argue, swayed voters to re-elect President Bush.

But so far, they don't seem to be biting on the Proposition 8 ruling.

"Any attempts at discounting Judge Vaughn Walker's recent ruling on Proposition 8 could be interpreted as a defense of inequality and discrimination as well as advocating for denying due process and equal protection for all Americans," R. Clarke Cooper, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay and lesbians, said in a statement. "There is no need for Republican candidates to run a campaign with direct or implied messaging against marriage equality."

Cooper said the Republican National Committee and GOP congressional campaign committees are "aggressively seeking" coalitions within the broader conservative community and are "consistently maintaining a general drumbeat of messaging on core conservative principles of individual liberty, individual responsibility, free-market economy, tax reform, strong national defense and a confident foreign policy."

Chadderdon said it's fascinating that Republicans wouldn't want to take the issue up considering "this would be a very base-motivating issue for them."

Effect on 2012 and beyond

While the issue won't be a big factor in November, it may hurt Obama's re-election campaign among gays in 2012, Chadderdon said.

"Is this constituency going to leave him? I certainly hope not. Are they going to voice their displeasure? Probably," she said. "Will this issue be something that really drives them away and keeps them home? Maybe. Then that will be crucial for the president."

There are a lot of people who think that the president's position is not one that's sustainable over the long term, Crowley added. "Certainly, for now, it has served the White House well as they tried not to make this something that is prominent on the president's agenda."

But how will Obama be viewed down the road?

"In 30 years, are people going to look back at President Obama and say he held us back? I would be surprised," Chadderdon said. "In a very short amount of time, he went further down that road of openly supporting gay rights and civil unions than any other presidential candidate -- Democrat or Republican -- than we've ever seen."