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What Will Obama Tell The Gays Under The Shadow Of Lady Liberty?

June 21, 2011 2:45 pm ET by Kerry Eleveld

It’s the type of juicy mix that makes political bloodhounds froth at the mouth. President Barack Obama ­– a self-declared “fierce advocate” for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans who doesn’t support marriage equality – swoops in to address LGBT Democrats in a city that’s barely slept as Empire State lawmakers weighed whether to reaffirm the promise of Lady Liberty: That freedom does, in fact, mean freedom for everyone, even in marriage.

The White House was already smelling trouble as it turned the corner into June, the month in which celebrations across the country mark the birth of the modern queer rights movement. Per usual, the president issued a Pride proclamation but, for the very first time since taking his seat in the Oval Office, he included no mention of relationship recognition whatsoever.

An open door, perhaps, through which Obama could fully evolve into supporting every American’s right to the pursuit of happiness? Or maybe White House officials simply didn’t want to poor salt on a wound for which they have no salve. But one has to wonder, what can President Obama tell a room full of gays who paid $1,250-plus to feel uplifted and inspired by their chief executive if he continues his objection to their full and equal participation in this union? 

He can’t avoid the subject altogether. Can you imagine the headlines? Obama Rains on Gay Parade. POTUS O-bombs In New York. Obama’s Not-So-Fierce Fundraiser. Ok, true enough, all those apply even if he mentions marriage equality at the dinner but doesn’t come out in favor of it.

So let’s assume he does talk about marriage, civil unions, relationship recognition – call it what you will. Here’s the thing, it will be devilishly difficult even for our pitch-perfect president to effuse enough lofty rhetoric to obscure the elephant in the room.

The last time Obama addressed a massive LGBT fundraiser was at a Human Rights Campaign Gala in October of 2009. That speech, most certainly, was the starting point for the president’s speech writers as they eyed his Thursday predicament.

“It is no secret that issues of great concern to gays and lesbians are ones that raise a great deal of emotion in this country,” Obama told the audience in ‘09. “But these issues also go to the heart of who we are as a people. Are we a nation that can transcend old attitudes and worn divides? Can we embrace our differences and look to the hopes and dreams that we share? Will we uphold the ideals on which this nation was founded: that all of us are equal, that all of us deserve the same opportunity to live our lives freely and pursue our chance at happiness? I believe we can; I believe we will.”

Hmmm… where can he go from here on Thursday? Seriously. It’s hard to imagine. I believe we can, I believe we will… but sorry, I just need a little more time.

Look, everyone knows this is a political calculation. President Obama was for marriage equality as a state senator in 1996 before he was against it as an aspiring presidential candidate in 2004 (the evolution of his positions are traced here). But as he heads into the 2012 election cycle, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for him to have it both ways on same-sex marriage – to carry the magic mantle of hope and change, to appeal to the better angels of our nature, while literally falling behind the trend lines on supporting something as fundamentally American as the expression of our liberty.

Here’s just a few notes on the shift in dynamics since the ‘08 election: Obama doesn’t have the cover of two competing Democratic candidates who also hold the same position of not supporting marriage equality; when he took office, only one state had legalized marriage and now five have plus the District of Columbia; a federal judge has ruled the crux of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and Obama himself has concurred; another federal judge ruled a California ballot measure stripping marital rights from gays unconstitutional; five major consecutive polls, including Gallup, have now found that a majority of Americans support the right of same-sex couples to marry; “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been repealed (but not lifted yet) and although GOP lawmakers are still waging the battles of yesteryear in Congress, the rest of America barely batted an eye.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, all this adds up to one thing: Drama. But more importantly, it’s about people’s lives, who they are to the core of their being, the fact that their heart pounds just as truly as everyone else’s. It’s about a longing for leadership that adds up to something more than a cold political calculation for the next election cycle.

But if calculate we must, let’s face it, the next election – like every election – will be about the economy, not marriage equality. So why not come full circle and stake your claim on the right side of history, Mr. President?