The National Times Online

By David Smith

President Barack Obama's announcement that he now supports the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry came a day after North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage was already illegal by statute in North Carolina, but the state's Republican legislators still felt the need to take it a step further and make it unconstitutional — and the voters agreed.

While Obama's announcement was symbolically important, historically unprecedented and heartening to those who support marriage equality around the world, it is important to remember where the real power lies in America's so-called "culture wars".

The president has very little power in any of the contentious ''values'' issues that play such a prominent if overrated role in American politics. Regardless of the strength of his or her convictions, no president could ban abortion or gay marriage, and nor could he significantly liberalise them. The states control those issues within constitutional limits that are sometimes contested in the Supreme Court.

For all his courtship of the conservative and evangelical vote, it was mostly beyond George W. Bush's power to advance a social conservative agenda, except through the appointments he made to the courts. In the same way, Obama cannot actually do anything for gay and lesbian couples who want to marry: the states they live in will decide.

A handful of states have embraced marriage equality at the polls, and others are likely to do so in the near future. But in some states, marriage equality is as far away as it ever was, barring the unlikely event that a majority-conservative Supreme Court finds that banning gay marriage violates the constitution.

Obama's announcement is still important because of what it tells us about how attitudes have changed on this issue, although not Obama's attitude — for all his claims about the "evolution" of his opinion, it is well known he supported gay marriage during his 1996 campaign for the Illinois senate. But things have changed overall. Even four years ago, Obama's advisers believed with some justification that there would be more political negatives than positives in coming out in favour of gay marriage.

Eight years ago, John Kerry's presidential prospects were seriously damaged by gay marriage. He didn't openly support it, but several states, including Ohio, had questions about it on the ballot during the presidential election, which probably drove up conservative turnout.

There have been two important changes in the past few years.

First, more Americans now support the rights of same-sex couples to marry. According to one analysis of multiple opinion polls in the past year, about 50 per cent of Americans on average say they support gay marriage, while 45 per cent oppose it.

Although these are very close results, usually within the margin of error, there is a definite trend towards a clear majority of Americans supporting it.

Perhaps just as important, however, is the fact that conservatives who oppose gay marriage simply no longer see it as a very important issue. Indeed, during a massive economic downturn it has probably receded in importance for most Americans, regardless of whether they support or oppose it.

In a survey conducted by the American National Election Study at the end of February, respondents were given a choice of 10 policy issues and asked to name the most and least important. While less than 1 per cent said same-sex marriage was the most important, a huge 47 per cent said it was the least important, far more than any other issue. Among conservatives it was even higher, apart from those who identified as ''very conservative'', who thought the environment was less important.

In such a political environment, there was very little risk of a damaging backlash to President Obama from supporting gay marriage. Those who are dedicated to stopping gay marriage weren't voting for Obama anyway, and many of those who oppose it don't care enough about it to change their vote.

But while opposition to gay marriage is no longer a problem for Obama, it is still a huge problem for same-sex couples who want to get married in conservative states. It is even a problem in states that are not overwhelmingly conservative.

State referendums are often low-turnout affairs and referendum battles are won by the best organised, allowing grassroots anti-gay marriage campaigners to achieve victories in unexpected places such as California.

A 2009 study by University of Michigan political scientists found that states that can amend their constitutions by referendum are much more likely to ban gay marriage than those that cannot.

The sobering lesson is that marriage inequality is likely to persist for as long as the rights of minorities can be put to a vote.

Dr David Smith is a lecturer in American politics at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney.