Some people may call it the craven politics of triangulation, but I actually think Obama's stance on gay marriage has been quite canny. Politics is the art of the possible, and I think when Obama came in in 2008, with the mortgage crisis, auto crisis, the possibility of a depression and two ongoing wars, he needed to push through a lot of laws, and gay rights had to take a back seat. I think he has since gently prodded the issue forward, and this current endorsement is the latest example of his incremental approach.
I also think that he understands better than others the parallels between gay rights and the civil rights movement, and how movements towards equality come not only from top-down legislating, but also from bottom-up, grassroots cultural changes in attitude (think Brown v. Board, which was not only a principled and courageous push from the SCOTUS, but was also extremely difficult to enforce given the attitudes of the times). That is partly why, I think, he has taken the approach that marriage equality should be resolved on a state-by-state basis.
My prediction is that as he heads into his second term (fingers crossed), he will have the political room and will enjoy a favorable social shift in attitudes to close the remaining gap, and perhaps move for a more forceful stance on marriage equality. It's a luxury he arguably did not have in 2008, or even now, and certainly that Clinton did not have back when he was forced to compromise with DODT.
Many people criticize Obama for flip-flopping on a moral issue, and I admit that I have also been disappointed at times with him. But when you take the long view, the issue can arguably be seen as whether he should have taken an early, principle stance — and possibly have torpedoed any chances at marriage equality — or be patient, and achieve concrete results in his second term.
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