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Still, a flood of Democratic lawmakers quickly issued statements praising the president, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), the most senior gay lawmaker in Congress who intends to marry before retiring later this year.
“I understand why a president facing a national election took some time in making this decision,” Frank said. He said the move wasn’t without political risk but predicted it would not cost Obama votes.
“Those opposed to legal equality for LGBT people were already inclined to oppose him, and that will make it easier for us to mobilize the people in this country who oppose discrimination to help re-elect him,” Frank said.
The political fallout is debatable — a Gallup poll shows the country split down the middle over the issue, with 50 percent support — but some key constituencies in important states remain opposed to same-sex marriage.
“Opinions on this issue are evolving faster than just about any other issue in the history of polling,” said influential Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, noting that even more Americans could support gay marriage six months from now than do today.
But Republicans aren’t so sure.
“It is terrible politics for a Democrat with swing voters in swing states,” said GOP strategist Brad Todd, who said it’s an issue that hurts Obama with a group he’s already struggling with because of the economy: working-class Democrats and independents. Todd added it’s also an issue that “divides a good bit of Obama’s base.”
The National Organization for Marriage, meanwhile, issued a release promising to defeat Obama.
“President Obama has made the definition of marriage a defining issue in the presidential contest, especially in swing states,” NOM President Brian Brown said.
Prominent Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, who is gay, cheered the move.
“I think it’s a great thing on all fronts,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. I think it’ll help him with every voter under the age of 40. I don’t think it’s limited just to the LGBT community.”
Elmendorf also said Republicans have to be careful, because attitudes are changing quickly.
“It’s moving fast, and I think Obama’s decision today was another sign that the world is changing,” he said.
Others predicted that Obama’s announcement could bring a wave of support from other politicians.
“I have to imagine that the purpose or value of the bully pulpit is to send a message that it’s OK to evolve to this position,” said one influential New York Democrat involved with marriage equality. “[Obama] coming out and supporting this will allow many Democrats — and Republicans too — who have been perhaps hiding” to change their positions.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Obama had “played politics” on the issue and that the GOP would stay firmly opposed to gay marriage.
Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) was one of the relatively few Republican lawmakers to blast out a statement, reaffirming his support for “traditional marriage.”
“President Obama’s announcement today is not surprising,” he said. “He is trying to shore up his liberal base in an election year.”