Campaigner-in-chief President Barack Obama scooped up yet more donations at three New York fundraisers Thursday night, and successfully navigated demands by New York gays and lesbians to endorse pending legislation that would grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The main event was a fundraiser at New York’s Sheraton hotel, where roughly 600 gays and lesbians applauded the president as he broadly hinted his support for their priorities, including for changes in marriage rules.
“Discrimination because of somebody’s sexual orientation or gender identity ran counter to who we are as a people, and it’s a violation of the basic tenets on which this nation was founded,” he told the mostly male crowd. “I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country,” he said, prompting the crowd to give him a standing ovation, whoops and hollers of approval.
Gays and lesbians are an important slice of the president’s shrinking base, partly because middle-class or working class gays and lesbians often serve as political activists, and wealthier gays and lesbians donate heavily.
Nationally, gays and lesbians comprise roughly 4 percent of the voters in presidential races, of which up to one-quarter vote for Republicans because of economic issues.
But other blocs critical to his 2012 campaign oppose changes to marriage rules. These blocs include African-Americans, Hispanics and many white voters. In a sour economy, where his ratings have fallen well below 45 percent, Obama needs these blocs to turn out and vote for him at high rates.
The political balancing act was highlighted at his third fundraiser of the night, a $100-a-ticket event at a theater for 1,400 people. The event was hosted by actress Whoopi Goldberg, and mostly attended by African-Americans who cheered as the president called for their support. He did not mention legal rights for gays at the event.
The second fundraiser of the night was a $38,500-a-plate restaurant event for about 65 people. According to a count by the Associated Press, Obama has held 33 fundraisers this year. During the same period in 2003, President George W. Bush held three fundraisers.
At the $1,250-a-plate gay and lesbian fundraiser, marriage was on the political menu partly because the state’s Senate was arguing late into the night whether to change the state’s marriage rules. (Obama taps strategic oil reserves as prices fall)
The president’s own legal authority and political status make him a central player in the national debate over marriage rules. So far, he has not ended his stated opposition to changing marriage rules, but his deputies have frequently said his views are “evolving,” and he has quietly or openly implemented many changes sought by gay and lesbian advocacy groups.
Those actions and statements raises hopes among gay and lesbian advocates that the President will come out in support of their priorities in his second term. Obama ended his speech by declaring that “with your help, if you keep up the fight, and if you will devote your time and your energies to this campaign one more time, I promise you we will write another chapter in that story…we are going to leave a new generation with a brighter future and a more hopeful future. And I’ll be standing there, right there with you.”
To demonstrate his support for their priorities, he told the fundraiser that he supported the decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to refuse to defend the constitutionality of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which says marriages licenses awarded to gays and lesbians should not be accepted by the federal government, and need not be accepted by state governments. The law was passed with support from roughly 80 percent of the Hill legislators.
However, Obama did not openly endorse the push by New York activists for changing the state’s marriage rules. “New York is doing exactly what democracies are supposed to do. There’s a debate; there’s deliberation about what it means here in New York to treat people fairly in the eyes of the law,” he said.
Progressives, gays and lesbians, as well as their allies in pro-diversity groups, say governments and courts should change marriage rules to allow two men or two women to get a marriage license.
Alternatives, such as private contracts or state-endorsed civil unions, are deemed inadequate by national and state groups that represent gays and lesbians, such as the D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign. The alternatives are inadequate, said activists, because they seem to imply incomplete government-endorsement of the two people’s personal and sexual relationship, and also have a lesser status in society compared to traditional weddings.
Conservatives, however, say government should stay out of the bedroom, and should support marriages that bind parents together while they raise their children. The creation and rearing of children is financially expensive and emotionally risky, but also vital for society, and so parents deserve extra support from society and government, say groups such as the National Organization for Marriage. Without families, they argue, more kids are born outside marriage, crimes rates increase, welfare-costs rise and government expands to hire more professionals as child-rearers.
Even though marriage is often tarnished by heterosexuals’ poor behavior, such as adultery and divorce, the conservatives say, the institution is so important for children that it should not be converted into a legal amenity for adults.
Since 1998, voters in 29 states have changed their state’s constitutions to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Five states, including Massachusetts and Iowa, award marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.