President Barack Obama’s recent announcement of his support for gay marriage was a natural step for his presidential campaign, according to Stanford community observers. Several Hoover fellows and students weighed in on the announcement, its timing and its implications for the upcoming election.
The timing of the announcement, shortly after Vice President Joe Biden endorsed gay marriage and North Carolina voters passed a constitutional amendment rejecting same-sex marriage, was more unexpected.
“North Carolina sort of forced his hand,” said Tammy Frisby, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. “Advocates for gay rights were unhappy [by the amendment] and turned to their president.”
Bill Whalen, also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, downplayed the groundbreaking nature of the announcement, noting that Obama had dropped numerous hints of his shifting perspective on the issue.
“When he ran for president, he said he was opposed,” Whalen said. “He’s been ‘evolving.'”
Frisby noted that the announcement would likely resonate disproportionately among college-age students, who have historically been more socially liberal.
“College students are excited,” Frisby said, “because this is an issue on which the majority of youth fall on the pro-gay rights side.”
Lindsay Lamont ‘13, president of the Stanford Democrats, said that Democrats on campus were delighted by the announcement.
“I’m surprised that he came out and was forthright about it, but I’m also really proud,” Lamont said.
Lamont acknowledged that the move might harm Obama’s electoral standing in states like North Carolina — which voted Democratic in 2008 — but expressed support for the announcement’s motivation.
“I think he wanted to be clear about his intentions and this shows how far the country has come, but it’s still risky,” Lamont said.
Frisby added that the announcement might also diminish Obama’s backing among Hispanic and African American voters, who tend to be more socially conservative but who turned out overwhelmingly in favor of Obama in 2008.
Kyle Huwa ‘13, president of the Stanford Conservative Society, said that the conservative community on campus intends to focus on economic and domestic policy issues rather than social matters, and framed the announcement as politically calculated.
“They sent out Biden first to test the waters and once he was received highly, Obama was able to come out,” Huwa said.
Frisby framed the announcement as a means of providing an alternate focus on social issues in an election frequently touted — especially by Republicans — as one offering competing economic philosophies.
“The election will be constrained by the economy,” Frisby said. “In the past, if the economy is doing well, voters vote for the incumbent. If it’s not doing well, they kick him out.”
With the presidential election still six months away, the announcement could have uncertain ramifications in size and direction.
“We just don’t know which way it will sway,” Frisby said.
“It’s advantageous for Obama to put some of these social issues on the table to redirect the national conversation away from the economy to other issues he can speak about,” Huwa said.
“Talking about the issue [of same-sex marriage] isn’t going to get him the election,” Whalen noted. “It’s going to be the economy.”
Both Whalen and Huwa highlighted the fundraising and activist interest generated by Obama’s announcement, in what Whalen suggested might be an attempt to recreate the “transformational” sentiment linked with Obama in the 2008 election.
Whalen also noted that, while Obama expressed his support for the concept of same-sex marriage, he made no legislative promises for his second term and has continued to depict the debate as a state-level issue.
“This is no indication that he’s willing to take up the fight and push for a constitutional amendment,” Whalen said. “You can parallel this with Branch Rickey [a Major League Baseball executive] saying he favors integration in baseball but not putting Jackie Robinson on second base.”