“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”
-- Vice President Joe Biden on “Meet the Press.”
The economy is faltering and Mitt Romney scores better with voters on his ability to turn it around than does President Obama.
If that dynamic remains the main force behind the 2012 election, Obama will lose. But, if Obama can find enough wedge issues with which to pry away potential Romney voters, he might be able to hang on to win a second term.
Obama can hope to keep his economy gap fairly narrow by vilifying Romney as a robber baron who victimizes the poor, but those kinds of attacks have a limited currency, mostly within the Democratic base.
Among the persuadable suburbanites who will probably decide the election, it seems very unlikely that the former community organizer will be able to outstrip the former CEO when it comes to the economy. While Obama can say that the economy isn’t as bad as it was when he took office, he won’t be able to say that it’s good.
In order to woo these voters, the Obama campaign and White House has sought ways to reignite the culture wars in a way that will paint Romney as a repressive extremist on social issues.
Romney didn’t discuss social issues much during his campaign, but Obama will hope to identify the former Massachusetts governor with the rhetoric and views of Romney’s former foe, Rick Santorum.
We saw this strategy clearly during the heat of the Republican nominating process when the Obama administration opted to deny an exemption to religious institutions for providing employee birth-control coverage as required by Obama’s 2010 health law.
Not only did this give Obama another way to solidify his support among single women – one of his most important blocs – but also to try to put Romney on the defensive from social conservatives. While Romney was in the Republican mainstream in blasting Obama’s refusal to allow conscientious objection on contraception, Santorum pushed the issue farther in hopes of toppling the GOP frontrunner.
Democrats got what they wanted: lots of press coverage that suggested Republicans think there’s something wrong with The Pill. That takes the advantage beyond just a base pleaser with subsidized birth control and into the culture wars that are a turnoff for many moderate suburbanites.
The risk on birth control, as with the rest of these wedge issues, is Obama being seen as a culture warrior himself. He can’t afford to reinforce the broad perception that he is too liberal or that he is pitting Americans against one another for his own political advantage. It requires considerable finesse and a friendly press corps to pull off.
Gay marriage is shaping up as the current big issue for Obama’s culture war.
Obama has all but said that he will embrace the idea of gay marriage if he is re-elected, discussing his “evolving” view on the subject. Certainly, Obama has already been the most pro-gay president in history, ending the military rules forbidding service members from openly expressing their sexualities, extending domestic benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees, refusing to defend a Clinton-era law defining marriage as between one man and one woman and doing lots of fundraising and coalition building within what his campaign calls the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
While Obama says he is still officially opposed to gay marriage, he is winking hard to supporters. Once he gets past the election, he will have “more flexibility” on the subject.
The latest part of the evolution came on Sunday when Vice President Joe Biden, the president’s top campaign surrogate, himself embraced the idea of same-sex marriage in an interview with NBC News.
Gay activists flatter themselves to say that this studied shift is because of pressure they have been applying. Maybe a little, but Obama’s larger hope is to put Romney in a trap. If this plays out like the contraception flap, Obama will get kudos from his base and manage to make Romney look like an extremist.
Ideally for Obama, Romney would say something lukewarm on the subject today in response to Biden’s newly expressed view. Then, conservative activists would become incensed at Romney’s failure to embrace their cause, prompting Romney to clarify his support for traditional marriage, prompting yet another round of reporting in the establishment press that Romney “caved” on same-sex marriage.
If it worked out the way he wanted, Obama would get more money and support of the small but influential gay community and at the same time be able to suggest to “Glee”-watching suburban moms that Romney hates gay people.
The risks here are even bigger than on birth control. While polls have shown that Americans are softening in their opposition to gay marriage, or at least civil unions, much opposition still remains.
North Carolina, one of Obama’s top target for the fall, holds a referendum on gay marriage Tuesday and voters are expected to widely approve a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman.
If Obama is seen as pushing the envelope on gayness, he will continue to lose ground with another key demographic group: blue-collar voters in places like North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Not only are they generally opposed to redefining marriage, but also would dislike the idea of Obama taking up the issue even as the economy sputters.
As Obama learned with health care, when people are worried about the economy, they do not want to see their president worrying about much else.
The Day in Quotes
"I'm sure in a lot of European countries there is relief, hope that at last austerity is no longer inevitable."
-- Francois Hollande, president-elect of France, addressing a crowd of supporters in Paris. Hollande, the first Socialist elected president of France in 17 years, ran on a platform that calls for increasing taxes on top earners to finance increased domestic spending.
“Look, the president in the last campaign said that he would go wherever he had to, to hit high-value al-Qaeda targets, including Usama bin Laden. One of the first things he did when he got here into the presidency was order the CIA to make this a top priority. That's one of the reasons -- that's the main reason why we were able to be in a position to find bin Laden.”
-- David Axelrod, senior political adviser to President Obama, on “This Week.”
“I think we’d both say that what we’ve found is that the Taliban is stronger [since President Obama’s second Afghan troop surge two years ago].”
-- Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on “State of the Union” discussing the findings of a report she authored with her House counterpart, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.
“We’re asking for independents. We’re asking for Democrats. We’re asking for unknowns. All of the above, everybody.”
-- Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., quoted by Politico asking for crossover votes in Tuesday’s Indiana primary, which polls show him poised to lose to Treasurer Richard Mourdock, ending a 35-year run in the Senate.
"Would you pick me? I am so much my own agent, it would be -- it's inconceivable."
-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on “Face the Nation.”
-- President Obama’s advantage over Mitt Romney in a USA Today/Gallup swing state poll. Obama’s advantage was 9 points in late March. The poll includes registered voters from Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
“22 of 25”
-- Share of Nevada’s Republican National Convention delegate slots won by supporters of Rep. Ron Paul at the state party’s Sunday convention.
-- Number of abortions performed by Planned Parenthood in 2010, according to a new report from the group. The organization’s largest area of practice was testing for venereal diseases: 4.1 million tests in 2010.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.