Obama avoids providing firm stance on gay marriage

Says same-sex couples deserve equal legal rights

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NEW YORK — President Obama rebuffed gay supporters who shouted out to him at a fundraiser Thursday night to declare that he endorses gay marriage.

“Marriage! Marriage!” several people shouted at Mr. Obama in the ballroom of a New York hotel.

“I heard you guys,” Mr. Obama replied. “Believe it or not, I anticipated [the question.]”

The president said he believes that “gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple.” There was a smattering of applause, but as the president talked about the ongoing debate in New York on gay marriage, another person in the crowd yelled, “Do you support it?”

Mr. Obama never answered directly, instead saying he supported democracy in action in New York.

Earlier Thursday, Mr. Obama visited Fort Drum in upstate New York, a military base that has seen frequent deployments to Afghanistan, to explain to soldiers his decision to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops by the summer of 2012.

“We’re not doing it precipitously,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re going to do it in a steady way to make sure that the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained.”

He told the service members, “Because of you, there are signs that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement, which ultimately is going to be critical for consolidating that country.”

Among the attendees at the fundraiser for gay supporters were Cynthia Nixon, star of the “Sex and the City” TV series, actress Jane Lynch of “Glee” and former Rep. Patrick Murphy, Pennsylvania Democrat and an Army veteran who led the effort in Congress to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The timing of Mr. Obama’s appearance at a midtown hotel, where as many as 600 guests paid up to $35,800 each, put the president in a delicate spot. His visit came on the same day the New York state Senate was debating a same-sex marriage bill.

The president has endorsed civil unions but not marriages for gay couples, although he has said his views on the subject are “evolving.” Many of his gay supporters say they won’t have true equality unless the president endorses gay marriage.

The chairman of a conservative gay group, GOProud, said Mr. Obama continues “to use the gay community as a political pawn.”

“He has drained the gay community for tens of millions of dollars and done as little as he can possibly get away with in return,” Chris Barron said. “The sad truth is that while the liberal elite pays $30,000 a head tonight, this president’s term in office has been as disastrous for average gay Americans as it has been for average straight Americans.”

As for supporting marriage, Mr. Barron said, “He will support gay marriage when one of two things happen: either gay people stop stuffing money into his campaign coffers or it becomes a political winner for him.”

Coming out in favor of gay marriage would cost Mr. Obama support among independent voters and socially conservative Democrats, said pollster John Zogby of IBOPE Zogby International.

“It could hurt him clearly with two groups - white working-class voters and African-Americans,” Mr. Zogby said. “He has to be very cautious about saying anything that may alienate even small groups that are traditional and conservative and just may not vote.”

Although 95 percent of black voters supported Mr. Obama in 2008, even turning away a small portion of this base in a weak economy while Mr. Obama’s job approval is low could hurt him, Mr. Zogby said. And about 40 percent of Latino voters are socially conservative, forming another key group the president is courting for his re-election bid.

Mr. Obama has said decisions on gay marriage should be left up to states. But he also signed a questionnaire in 1996 as a candidate for the Illinois state senate saying he supported gay marriage.

Currently five states — Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont — and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. New York’s legislation was proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.

The president has given gays some victories, most notably his support for repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, although the administration still hasn’t certified it officially.

Earlier this year, the administration decided to stop defending in court a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that bars federal government recognition of same-sex unions. In 2009, the administration extended benefits to domestic partners of federal employees.

Mr. Obama has proclaimed this month “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month.” Of course, he has also declared June as “Great Outdoors Month,” “African-American Music Appreciation Month” and “National Caribbean-American Heritage Month.”

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