Although President Obama was feeling the love in Tampa last week at his campaign appearance at Hillsborough Community College, he faces a host of problems in his bid to be re-elected this November.
At the top of the list is the country’s continuing anemic economic performance. In election polls, the one statistic where the president constantly falls short in comparison to Mitt Romney is in handling of the economy, considered the issue of the campaign.
But while there might not be much Obama can do there, he does have some weapons up his sleeve, and he’s been deploying them in recent weeks. Earlier this month he hit the political equivalent of a home run with his declaration that the Department of Homeland Security would no longer deport up to 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before they were 16 and have graduated from high school. Republicans howled that the executive order was unconstitutional, but there was surprisingly little resistance to the actual policy.
And on May 9, Obama electrified many in the LGBT community when he announced his support for same-sex marriage, though his support was only rhetorical and carried no specific policy recommendations.
Nevertheless it was a big fucking deal, as Vice President Joe Biden might say.
“I was elated,” says Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida. “Not only was the president of the United States taking this stand, he was showing people who were teetering on the issue a path forward toward fairness.”
Political pundits such as Jon Meacham and Mark Halperin on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program recently derided the idea that Obama showed courage in coming out for same-sex marriage, just three days after Vice President Biden voiced his support on Meet The Press. Meacham cited a story in Politico that Obama’s team was annoyed with the veep for pushing up the timetable on the president’s announcement — supposedly intended to be made in the weeks leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this September.
But much of the gay community applauds Obama for making the announcement nearly six months before the election.
“For a president who’s in a difficult election cycle, to me personally that was a sign of courage,” says Susan McGrath of the Pinellas County Stonewall Democrats.
McGrath specifically refers to the swing state of North Carolina, where his announcement might prove harmful. Obama barely won there in ’08, and Dems are hungry to win it again this year, which is one reason Charlotte is hosting the convention. But the night before the president made his news, the North Carolina electorate overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage, becoming the 32nd straight state to do so.
That comes despite the fact that polls continue to show increased support for the measure.
For example, a poll taken by Public Policy Polling earlier this month showed Floridians still believe same-sex marriage should be illegal, but only by a 3-point margin (45-42). That’s a major change from just last October, when Florida voters were last polled on the matter by the organization. At that time it was a 48-37 percent margin against same-sex marriage.
Three years earlier, Floridians voted by a 62-38 percent margin for Amendment Two, which bans same-sex marriage in the Sunshine State.
There are four more states voting on the issue this November (Washington, Minnesota, Maine and Maryland), with some activists believing the prospects are good in Washington and Maine.
GOP political consultant and Bay News 9 analyst Chris Ingram believes “The Bradley effect” may be in play.
That’s a reference to the phenomenon of black candidates faring better in polls than at the voting booths, with the prime example being former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Running to become California’s first black governor in 1982, Bradley led in polls going into the race but ended up losing to his white GOP opponent, George Deukmejian.
“I think that’s absolutely going on,” Ingram says.
John Stemberger with the Florida Family Planning Council agrees. The organization was behind Florida’s 2008 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He contends that any gay rights measures “underpoll,” and attributes that to the gay rights movement creating a “hostile atmosphere for anyone who disagrees with them.”
Then again, few in the gay community believe the electorate should decide the civil rights of a minority.
“If we had to vote on all the civil rights issues, we probably would not have made the progress we have made so far, so it should not be up for a vote,” says Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner.
Another openly gay elected official in the Bay area, St. Pete City Councilman Steve Kornell, agrees.
“The whole purpose of certain parts of the Constitution is to protect minorities,” he says.
Most political analysts say it’s hard to detect whether the move by the president, which by itself changes nothing on the ground, helps or hurts his chances of being re-elected this fall.