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First Thoughts: Obama's careful line on same-sex marriage

Obama announces support for same-sex marriage, but walks a careful line to respect states’ rights and religious views – always with an eye on the middle. … Obama was going to do this, but Biden expedited this… And, of course, the politics – in short, this ain’t 2004. Gay marriage isn’t the divisive issue it was eight years ago, but there’s always risk in overreach. … It was another day not talking about the economy, which can be seen as both pro and con for Obama … and GOP caught a break because stories about whether there’s room for centrists were overshadowed and were not driving the conversation as they would have … On to Wisconsin, more than $23 million spent – most in support of Walker (a full ad buy breakdown) … Dems try for show of unity, and Scott Walker’s focused on – manufacturing.

From NBC's Chuck Todd, Domenico Montanaro, Natalie Cucchiara, Carrie Dann, and Brooke Brower

Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks during an "In Performance at the White House" concert in the East Room of the White House May 9, 2012.

*** Obama’s careful line: We said earlier this week that after Vice President Biden’s comments on Meet the Press, it was hard to see -- with the Clooney fundraiser in Hollywood tonight and the Ricky Martin fundraiser Monday -- how President Obama goes the entire week without saying something on same-sex marriage. And yesterday, he announced he believes “same-sex couples should be able to get married,” making Obama the first American president to hold that stance. But the president, always with the middle in mind, was very careful to be sensitive to the issues of states’ rights and religion. That blunted a lot of the potential criticism from the GOP that might have come on federal overreach, etc. The White House made it clear; it’s not going to make any sort of effort at the federal level advance this. If same-sex marriage advances on a national level, it will likely be decided by the courts rather than Congress. There’s always risk in overreach. Remember, 39 states have some form of a ban on gay marriage. That’s why you saw Obama more careful yesterday than some have noted in the coverage.

In an interview with Good Morning America's Robin Roberts, President Obama announced his personal support for same-sex marriage. NBC's Chuck Todd reports on the announcement and its likely fallout.

*** Biden – God love him: Obama told staffers a few months ago of his change, according to aides, and that he wanted his team to figure out an appropriate time to tell the country. But aides to the president admit that Biden’s comments Sunday expedited things. “I had already made a decision that we were going to take this position before the election and before the convention,” Obama said on ABC this morning. “He probably got out a little bit over his skis, but out of a generosity of spirit. … Would I have preferred to have done this in my own way, on my own terms without there being a lot of notice to everybody, sure.” The announcement was done hastily and out of political expediency of this week. They were going to do this before the election, maybe before the convention. But they had to do it this week to stop this line potentially of the president looking weak.

*** This isn’t 2004 -- the political impact of all this: If there’s any impact on all this, it’s at the margins and it’s on enthusiasm and intensity. The gay community probably feels more connected to the president and more fired up than ever before. Social conservatives, as Tony Perkins noted yesterday on Nightly News, who feel that feel traditional marriage is being eroded, they will feel the need to get behind Romney in a way they haven’t before. But this is not 2004, and that was evidenced by GOP reaction yesterday. The only line of attack you heard from establishment GOP was on process – why and how the president did it. The only people you heard from attacking Obama because of the POSITION he took were from the usual suspects in the social conservative wing – Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, NOM. But there have been several high-profile Republicans who have come out in favor of same-sex marriage, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and former RNC Chairman and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman. Even former President George W. Bush, who pushed for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2004, has since said he’s in favor of civil unions.

*** Romney re-states opposition: Romney didn’t look like someone thinking this was an automatic help for him politically. He re-stated his position: “My view is that marriage itself is a relationship between a man and a woman, and that's my own preference. I know other people have differing views.” But noted: “This is a very tender and sensitive topic….” He seemed to relish the fact that his position hasn’t changed his position – he’s always been against same-sex marriage, though in 1994, signaled stronger support for gay rights. The president, by contrast, has changed twice. In 1996, he indicated support in a questionnaire, then reversed course in his 2004 Senate race, and in 2008, he argued for civil unions. The White House argues that if this somehow is a political debate, they’ll be on the right side of it, because it believes Romney’s position on wanting a federal BAN on it goes too far and is more unpopular than where the president is now. They’ll paint him as wanting to take the country backward, going with their “Forward” campaign. (And it makes that point today in a web video.) But neither side thinks it has a “winning” position.

*** Near-term political danger for Obama, Romney: It’s a given now that this will be a plank of Democratic platform at the convention. The campaign is owning it now. The issue has the danger politically – in the near term – for Obama of looking like he’s not focused on the economy. Any day, he doesn’t appear focused on the economy, is not necessarily a winning day for him. On the other hand, Republicans would argue that he’s purposely not talking about the economy, because it’s another day not talking about the struggling economy. The challenge for Romney in next 48 hours will be making sure that the same thing that happened on contraception doesn’t happen on gay marriage. He doesn’t need the Rush Limbaughs of the world going bonkers on this today and Romney having to defend comments from the rhetorical extremes. That’s Romney’s internal challenge – and one he has little control over -- that his party doesn’t go down the rabbit hole on this.  

*** The other good news for Republicans – distracting from centrist story line: The president’s comments overshadowed the debates that would have been taking place today – of whether there is any room for moderates in the Republican Party, following the Indiana results. In a weird way, that is a small victory for them. Any day with a lot of stories in the news and headlines about the lack of centrists is NOT a good day for the GOP as it tries to re-appeal to suburbia. And there would have been yesterday, and it would have had (and still has) the potential to be a real issue for swing voters. It’s why you see the Obama campaign try to tie Romney to anything the GOP and outside groups do and say.

*** More than $23 million already spent in Wisconsin: The next 26 days are going to be among the most political toxic in the state of Wisconsin that we’ve seen in years, perhaps decades. More than $23.4 million in ads have been booked SO FAR in Wisconsin, and the REAL race is just getting underway. Ads supporting Gov. Scott Walker (R) have dominated with those groups booking $15.3 million in ads spent so far versus $6.7 million spent on the other side. Walker, who has raised $25 million for his bid, has been the biggest spender going up with $9.4 million in ads. Others of note: Right Direction Wisconsin (affiliated with the Republican Governor’s Association) $3.6 million; Wisconsin for Falk (backed by labor) $3.4 million; Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (pro-Walker); Americans for Prosperity (Koch Bros. backed), Greater Wisconsin Committee (pro-Dem), and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett have all spent more than $1 million.

*** Get ready for the sequel: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sets the table: “Voters, get ready for the sequel. The historic recall election rematch between Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is just four weeks away, and compared with 2010 it's already more costly, harder fought and more driven by resources flowing in from outside Wisconsin.” Barrett and his former Democratic challengers gathered outside his home yesterday in a show of unity a day after the primary. By the way, check out what Walker is focusing on… “While the Democrats circled the wagons, Walker had events across the state to promote the state’s manufacturing sector, dubbing this week ‘Manufacturing Awareness Week,’” the Wisconsin State Journal writes.

Countdown to Wisconsin recall election: 26
Countdown to Arizona 8 (Giffords seat) special election: 33
Countdown to Utah Senate primary: 47 days
Countdown to Election Day: 180 days

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