The political risks of supporting gay rights

Yet there may be good reasons for the president to move slowly. Historically, American presidents have rarely gotten far ahead of public opinion on civil rights issues, and the few times they have, they've paid a substantial price for doing so.

Public opinion on gay marriage has continued to evolve since 2004, when the nation opposed it by a margin of roughly 2 to 1. Most recent polls still show majority opposition, but the margin has shrunk to less than 10 percentage points. One well-respected statistician has estimated that by 2012 or 2013, a majority of people in a majority of states will support gay marriage.

Should Obama be reelected in 2012, he almost certainly will endorse gay marriage during his second term. By then, a majority of Americans, and an overwhelming majority of Democrats, will support the practice. Could Obama shift his position before 2012 without endangering his chances at a second term? Possibly.

But in many of the states that proved to be battlegrounds in the 2008 presidential campaign — Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida — majorities still oppose same-sex marriage. A presidential pronouncement in favor would rally conservative opposition and could prove crucial to some swing voters. For many political progressives who believe that the issue already may have cost Democrats one presidential election (and, with it, two Supreme Court appointments), the risk isn't worth taking.

Maybe we should put more of an emphasis on focusing our own efforts on the following States: OH, IN, NC, VA, and FL.