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The Daily Need

As Democrats despair over Obama, there’s one issue left that could re-energize his base

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg officiates the marriage ceremony of Jonathan Mintz, left, and John Feinblatt, Sunday, July 24, 2011 at Gracie Mansion in New York. Photo: AP Photo/Office of the Mayor, Edward Reed

Earlier this month,  after a deluge of depressing economic numbers, President Obama received one more dose of bad news: More voters in the Democratic stronghold of New York, considered the most heavily Democratic large state by National Journal’s Almanac of American Politics, disapprove of his performance than approve of it, 49 percent to 45 percent. With his national poll numbers at an all-time low of 41 percent, according to Gallup, the president might reasonably assume that at least died-in-the-wool liberals would be behind him. Apparently, that’s not the case.

As the president seeks to reclaim the momentum by, among other things, touring the Midwest on a campaign-style bus, there’s clearly some amount of disillusionment setting in among Democrats. Nationally, they still largely approve of Obama’s performance  — the RealClearPolitics average approval rating among Democrats stands at 79 percent — but that’s without a Republican challenger to articulate a full-throated critique of Obama’s record and highlight his failure to create more jobs and speed up the faltering recovery. And the poor numbers in reliably liberal New York suggest that Obama’s national approval among Democrats may be soft. At town halls across the country, Democratic voters are expressing deep dissatisfaction with the president’s strategy of casting himself as a centrist and courting independent voters rather than appeasing the base.

Liberal commentators and strategists, then, are beginning to suggest that Obama abandon that strategy. The president, they say, should invest more time and energy in shoring up his support among the liberals who put him in office in the first place — who catapulted him to the Democratic nomination and, in the general election, helped him mount one of the most formidable and sophisticated grassroots organizing campaigns in American history. That infrastructure is now virtually nonexistent, its members demoralized — and not just in Democratic strongholds like New York. In Pennsylvania, a key swing state, Democratic approval of Obama’s job performance is 10 points lower than the national average.

Exciting his disaffected liberal base might go a long way toward injecting fresh energy into Obama’s torpid re-election effort. But if he can’t win concessions from Republicans on issues like tax increases and health care spending, how might the president go about reigniting the passions of his once-enthusiastic supporters? Conveniently, he has one issue at his disposal that liberal voters care deeply about, an issue that will almost certainly make headlines again in 2012, just as the presidential campaign begins in earnest: gay marriage.

Until now, President Obama has coyly declined to take a firm position on the question of whether same-sex marriage should be legalized. He hasn’t said he is opposed to it, but hasn’t came out in favor of it, either. His administration, on the other hand, has taken a much more forceful stance on LGBT issues in general, calling for the repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and issuing an executive order barring violators of LGBT human rights from entering the country. While those moves have buoyed LGBT activists, Obama’s ambivalence on same-sex marriage has remained a source of disappointment.

“In significant respects, Obama’s words have not kept pace with his own administration’s actions, and as a consequence even as he offers the gay and lesbian community hopeful signs of progress on marriage equality, his high wire refusal to simply embrace the concept outright continues to be a source of frustration,” Paul Schindler, the editor of Gay City News, wrote this week.

By contrast, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s full-throated advocacy for same-sex marriage has cheered Democrats not only in New York but across the country, despite his much more conservative fiscal record; he’s already been anointed one of the front-runners for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, and inspired Democratic presidential hopefuls in other states to become much more aggressive in their support for same-sex marriage as well.

Which brings us to Obama’s re-election campaign: The next battleground in the fight for same-sex marriage will most likely be Maryland, where Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democratic rising star himself, has promised a more intensive effort to pass the bill after it failed in the State Legislature earlier this year. But Maryland’s next legislative session doesn’t start until January, which means lawmakers in Maryland — and talking heads across the country — will be debating the issue just as the presidential election heats up and a Republican standard-bearer begins to emerge. With liberals exercised over the issue and the fight in Maryland making national headlines, early 2012 could be the perfect time for Obama to forcefully declare his support for same-sex marriage.

In doing so, the only potential drawback, according to some strategists, is that Obama might alienate more moderate, culturally conservative voters. However, when you look at the numbers, there seems to be little threat of such a backlash: According to a May Gallup poll, a majority of Americans now believe that gay couples should be allowed to marry. Crucially, support for same-sex marriage is at 69 percent among Democrats and 70 percent among young voters, a constituency Obama relied on in 2008 and must win back in 2012.

So, advocating forcefully for the rights of gay couples may well help Obama re-energize a base that remains deeply dissatisfied with his approach toward economic issues. But, surprisingly, same-sex marriage isn’t just popular with liberals: As it turns out, 59 percent of independent voters support the right of gay couples to wed as well, according to that same Gallup poll. That fact may be why even staunch conservatives are keeping their distance from the issue. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for example, has said he is “fine” with New York’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage, even though he personally opposes it. When asked in the first Republican presidential debate how he felt about the issue, GOP front-runner Mitt Romney avoided it altogether, saying, “We ought to be talking about the economy and jobs.”

Making marriage equality an issue in the 2012 election, then, allows Obama not only to stoke the passions of his own liberal base, but to put the Republicans on the defensive. Of course, there is little doubt that the economy and unemployment will dominate the campaign; as Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, put it, those issues are likely to “swamp” everything else. But whether Obama likes it or not, the debate over same-sex marriage will almost certainly be reprised in time for the start of the 2012 campaign; many liberal activists are hoping he’ll take advantage of it.