NEW YORK – Treading carefully, President Barack Obama praised New York state lawmakers who were debating landmark legislation Thursday to legalize gay marriage, saying that's what democracy's all about. But as expected, the president stopped short of embracing same-sex marriage himself, instead asking gay and lesbian donors for patience.
"I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country," the president said at a Manhattan fundraiser, his first geared specifically to the gay community. Coincidentally, the long-planned event occurred just as lawmakers in Albany were debating legislation that would make New York the sixth and by far the largest state to legalize gay marriage.
That served to spotlight the president's own views on same-sex marriage, a sore point with gay supporters who've otherwise warmed to Obama. The president has said his views are "evolving," but for now he supports civil unions, not same-sex marriage.
Obama said progress will be slower than some people want, but he added that he was confident that there will be a day "when every single American, gay or straight or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, is free to live and love as they see fit.
"Traditionally marriage has been decided by the states and right now I understand there's a little debate going on here in New York," he said to laughter. New York's lawmakers, he said, are "doing exactly what democracies are supposed to do."
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The lawmakers ended their session late Thursday in Albany without voting on the bill.
As Obama spoke a handful of people shouted out "marriage!" And Obama said, "I heard you guys." He never directly mentioned gay marriage.
Obama said there were those who shouted at him at events about other causes of the gay community, such as the need for anti-hate crimes legislation and for the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on openly gay military service, and both of those have since been achieved.
Obama also has won favor by instructing the Justice Department to stop defending in court a law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Obama told of receiving a letter last year from a teenager in a small town. He said the boy was a senior in high school who was gay and was afraid to come out. The boy wondered to the president why gays shouldn't be equal like everyone else.
"So, yes, we have more work to do," Obama said. "Yes, we have more progress to make. Yes, I expect continued impatience with me on occasion."
He said teenagers such as the one who wrote to him "remind me that there should be impatience when it comes to the fight for basic equality. We've made enormous advances just in these last two and half years. But there's still young people out there looking for us to do more."
In a direct appeal for votes, Obama said: "With your help, if you keep up the fight, if you will devote your time and your energies to this campaign one more time, I promise you we will write another chapter in that story. ... I'll be standing there, right there with you."
Overall the reaction Obama got was warm from the crowd of nearly 600 who paid up to $35,800 each to hear him speak at a midtown hotel. And only a small group of protesters showed up to demonstrate outside for marriage equality. It was a measure of how much the gay community has warmed to Obama since earlier in his administration when donors threatened to boycott Democratic fundraisers to pressure Obama on "don't ask, don't tell."
If Obama were to endorse gay marriage, it would give a jolt of enthusiasm to his liberal base and perhaps unlock additional fundraising dollars from the well-heeled gay community. It's not clear it would get him too many additional votes in 2012 though, because the Republican field's general opposition to gay rights gives activists no alternative to Obama.
At the same time, supporting gay marriage could alienate some religious voters that the politically cautious White House might still hope to win over for Obama's re-election campaign.
Obama has indicated support in the past for states allowing gay people to marry. As a presidential candidate, he went so far as to congratulate gay couples in California who married during the short period when gay marriage was legal in that state before voters shut it down.
The president also signed a questionnaire in 1996 as a candidate for Illinois state Senate saying he supported gay marriage, something the White House hasn't fully explained.
Even as the president deliberates, public sentiment is marching decisively in the direction of supporting gay marriage. Depending on the poll, people are now about evenly split or narrowly in favor.
"There's been a noticeable shift the last couple of years," said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. In March, the center found that 45 percent of those surveyed favored gay marriage and 46 percent opposed it. That was the first time that the survey found an essentially even split instead of majority opposition.
It's something the president has noted, telling liberal bloggers in October that "it's pretty clear where the trend lines are going."
The question is when, how and if the president goes there too.