On Gay Rights, Obama Lets Surrogates Lead

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an audience of diplomats in Geneva this month that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” In an interview in November, Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, said that he was proud to support the right of same-sex couples to marry.

The president enthusiastically endorsed Mrs. Clinton’s message, issuing a presidential memorandum directing all federal agencies to promote gay rights overseas. And while he said nothing publicly about Mr. Donovan’s declaration — which went further than Mr. Obama’s own position on the issue — a senior administration official said that Mr. Donovan enjoyed “the trust and respect of the president.”

Mr. Obama’s strategy, administration officials and gay rights advocates said, reflects two conflicting forces. He recognizes that support for gay rights and same-sex marriage is growing, particularly among young voters.

But he is reluctant in an election year to be drawn into a culture-war issue — one that reliably helps Republicans turn out evangelical voters in their favor and also strikes a particular nerve with religious black voters, a bedrock Obama constituency in battleground states like North Carolina and Florida.

There is little indication that Mr. Obama plans to endorse same-sex marriage before the presidential election in November, despite recent statements that tiptoe right up to that position. Speaking to a gay rights group in October, he said, “Every single American — gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender — every single American deserves to be treated equally before the law.”

But in the absence of that symbolic step, the White House wants gay people to know that it stands with them. It is publicizing initiatives like the State Department’s campaign against persecution overseas and a government conference on the problems faced by older gay people.

“It works for the White House on several levels, particularly in an election year,” said Richard Socarides, a Democratic political strategist who advised former President Bill Clinton on gay-rights issues. “Gay voters will be more enthusiastic for him than we would have been a year ago.” Some gay rights advocates believe that Mr. Obama will declare his support for same-sex marriage before the election — both because polling data shows a sharp increase in voter support for it among crucial groups, and because two pending court rulings on marriage rights will make it harder to justify the president’s position that his views are still evolving.

“My core argument is that you’ve got a lot to win and not a lot to lose,” said Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, a group that campaigns for marriage rights. “It would remove a constant irritating false note, and it would allow him to tap into an unmitigated good stream of energy.”

Interviews with administration officials, however, suggest that the president believes he can stand pat and still win a large majority of gay votes, based on his track record, which includes his decision not to defend a 1996 law that defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman.

The president may have history on his side: a nationwide exit poll conducted by the firm Edison/Mitofsky in the 2008 elections found that 4 percent of voters indicated they were gay. Of that group, 70 percent said they voted for Mr. Obama and 27 percent for the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain.

This time, Mr. Obama is being helped by Republican candidates who are competing to proclaim their opposition to same-sex marriage as they court social conservatives in Iowa. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas have all been confronted in recent days over their positions on gay rights.

Mr. Gingrich told a voter in Iowa that he should “be for Obama” if same-sex marriage was the sole issue he cared about. Mr. Perry was heckled for a television commercial in which he declared, “There’s something wrong in this country if gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas.” Mr. Romney sat down with a military veteran in a New Hampshire restaurant and ended up sparring with him over the state’s gay-marriage law, which Mr. Romney opposes.

David B. Mixner, a longtime gay rights advocate who has raised money for candidates, said he planned to work hard for Mr. Obama’s re-election. “We can keep pushing for marriage without stopping our work for him,” he said, “because we can just look at the cast of characters waiting in the wings.”

Mr. Obama’s appeal to supporters of gay rights rests on more than a fear of Republicans. Administration officials say he has compiled an impressive record, same-sex marriage aside. In particular, the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibited gay men, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly in the military fulfilled a campaign promise that many supporters did not believe Mr. Obama would be able to keep.

“One issue after another he’s taken them on and he’s knocked them down in a very methodical way, but consistent with his views about justice and fairness in the United States,” said Melody Barnes, Mr. Obama’s chief domestic policy adviser.

In October, two weeks after the military’s ban on openly gay soldiers ended, the president received a standing ovation at a dinner held by the Human Rights Campaign, a group that advocates for gay rights. He felt comfortable enough with the crowd to joke about having held “productive bilateral talks with your leader, Lady Gaga.”

In recent weeks, though, it is the president’s cabinet members who have set the pace on gay rights issues.

Mrs. Clinton’s passionate speech on gay rights in Geneva has been likened to the famous one she gave on women’s rights in Beijing in 1995, when her husband was president. And the significance went beyond her words, administration officials said. She said that the United States would protect gay victims of persecution and that it would channel foreign assistance in ways that promote equal rights for gay people.

Daniel B. Baer, a deputy assistant secretary of state who helped develop the policy, said that by staking out such a strong position on gay rights abroad, the United States would face pressure to keep moving on the issue at home.

“If we are articulating one thing internationally and another thing domestically,” he said, “that tension gets pointed out.”

Mr. Baer, one of the highest-ranking gay members of the administration, said Mrs. Clinton’s speech was not written for domestic consumption. Still, he added, “Her leadership on this does accrue to the benefit of the president.” NYT