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Why gay marriage won't hurt Obama

Independent voters are more concerned about the economy.

New York City Clerks Offices opened its first Sunday for Gay Marriages, Photograph: Getty Images.

The big news is that President Barack Obama is coming out in favor of gay marriage. The bigger news is that few people, not even the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, preoccupied as he is by more pressing material concerns, seem to care much.

It all started on Sunday when Vice President Joe Biden told NBC's Meet the Press that he was comfortable with "men marrying men [and] women marrying women" and that gay couples "are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties."

Then shortly afterward Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, was asked on a news show on MSNBC whether he supports same-sex marriage. He said yes and that he'd never been publicly asked that before.

It was awkward. Their boss's official position had been "evolving." Obama had previously supported civil unions, pushed for repeal of the Pentagon's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, and ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. But because this is an election year, Obama had been cagey about where he stands on gay marriage.

Until now. After three days of intense questioning by the White House press corps, Obama chose to announce his views not during a press briefing but during an interview with an ABC News reporter. Part of the interview was released last night but most of it will be aired on today's Good Morning America.

"In the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated," the president said.

Now the pundits are turning their attention to the politics of Obama's coming out. Will it hurt him with coveted independent voters? With African-Americans, who tend to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage?

The honest answer is no one knows. But the educated guess is probably not. Polls show independent voters are more concerned about the economy and other material concerns. Black voters, too, tend to vote with their pocketbooks, not on social issues. Indeed, social issues are less important this year than they were in 2004 when "Gays, Guns and God" superseded even the Iraq War. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, just 28 percent said they cared about gay marriage. Respondents were concerned instead with the economy (86 percent), jobs (84 percent), deficits (74 percent), and health care (74 percent).

Even Mitt Romney doesn't care. Well, he does, but not much. In an interview in Colorado, a reporter asked Romney about gay marriage, in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants and medical marijuana. He told the reporter that he opposes all of these, but then, when she challenged him, he pushed back:

"Aren't there issues of significance that you'd like to talk about: the economy, the growth of jobs, the need to put people back to work ... there are enormous challenges that we face," Romney said.

In 1996, when the US economy was the best it had been, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) sailed through Congress and was signed by Bill Clinton, a Democrat. It defined marriage as between a man and a woman. It therefore does not recognize the validity of gay marriage in the six states and District of Columbia that legalized it. Though some states are banning it (most recently North Carolina), resistance has waned. A new Gallup poll shows that half of Americans (52 percent) believe same-sex marriage should be legal. More importantly, for Obama's re-election chances: 57 percent of independents support legalization. Only 22 percent of Republicans do.

Some of those Republicans really, really want gay marriage to be a wedge issue, probably because Republicans do so poorly when bread-and-butter issues, like jobs and health care, are at stake. Brian Brown, of the National Organization for Marriage, said: "President Obama has now made the definition of marriage a defining issue in the presidential contest."

Maybe. Well, probably not. Actually, no.

Even Shepard Smith, a Fox News anchor, suggested the GOP would lose this one. He asked a reporter:

"I am curious whether you believe in this time of rising debt and medical issues and all the rest, if Republicans would go out on a limb and try to make this a campaign issue while sitting very firmly without much question on the wrong side of history."