WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s decision to abandon his legal support for the Defense of Marriage Act has generated only mild rebukes from the Republicans hoping to succeed him in 2012, evidence of a shifting political climate in which social issues are being crowded out by economic concerns.
The Justice Department announced Wednesday that after two years of defending the law — hailed by proponents in 1996 as an cornerstone in the protection of traditional values — the president and his attorney general have concluded it is unconstitutional.
In the hours that followed, Sarah Palin’s Facebook site was silent. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, was close-mouthed. Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, released a Web video — on the labor union protests in Wisconsin — and waited a day before issuing a marriage statement saying he was “disappointed.”
Others, like Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, took their time to weigh in, and then only in the most tepid terms.
“The Justice Department is supposed to defend our laws,” Barbour said.
Asked if Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana, had commented on the marriage decision, a spokeswoman said the possible presidential candidate “hasn’t, and with other things we have going on here right now, he has no plans.”
The sharpest reaction came from Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, in an interview here during a stop to promote his new book. He called the administration’s decision “utterly inexplicable.”
Just a few years ago, the president’s decision might have set off an intense national debate about gay rights. But the Republicans’ reserved response this week suggests that Obama may suffer little political damage as he evolves from what many gay rights leaders saw as a lackluster defender of their causes into a far more aggressive advocate.
“The wedge has lost its edge,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who worked for President George W. Bush during his 2004 campaign, when gay marriage ballot measures in a dozen states helped turn out conservative voters.
Obama’s move provoked some outrage, especially among evangelical Christians and conservative groups like the Family Research Council. But Republican strategists and gay rights activists said Thursday that the issue’s power as a political tool for Republican candidates is diminishing. While surveys suggest that Americans are still evenly divided on whether the federal government should recognize gay marriages, opposition has plummeted from nearly 70 percent in 1996.
Prominent Republicans like Dick Cheney, the former vice president, and Barbara Bush, daughter of Bush, have defended the right of gays to marry. And Obama has been emboldened by the largely positive response to his recent, and successful, push for Congress to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s ban on gays serving openly.