President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage on Wednesday was by any measure a watershed. A sitting United States president took sides in what many people consider the last civil rights movement, providing the most powerful evidence to date of how rapidly views are moving on an issue that was politically toxic just five years ago.
Mr. Obama faces considerable risk in jumping into this debate, reluctantly or not, in the heat of what is expected to be a close election. The day before he announced his position, voters in North Carolina — a critical state for Mr. Obama and the site of the Democratic convention this summer — approved by a 20-point margin a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. It was the 31st state to pass such an amendment.
As George W. Bush demonstrated in 2004, when his campaign engineered initiatives against gay marriage in a series of swing states, opponents are far more likely to vote on these issues than supporters. Mitt Romney, the probable Republican presidential candidate, was quick to proclaim his opposition to gay marriage after Mr. Obama spoke. And however much national attitudes may be shifting, the issue remains highly contentious among black and Latino voters, two groups central to Mr. Obama’s success.
Yet as Mr. Obama has clearly come to recognize, the forces of history appear to be changing. The president was at risk of seeming politically timid and calculating, standing at the sidelines while a large number of Americans — including members of both parties — embraced gay marriage. That is a particularly discordant image, many Democrats said, for the man who was the nation’s first black president.