Obama Endorses Gay Marriage: ‘I Think Same-Sex Couples Should Be Able to Get Married’

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President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced his support for gay marriage, becoming the first sitting U.S. President to endorse equal status for same-sex couples and responding to building pressure to clarify his position as his re-election campaign gets underway.

“I’ve always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally,” Obama told ABC’s Robin Roberts in an interview at the White House Wednesday afternoon. “Over the course of several years, as I’ve talked to friends and family and neighbors,” he said, “at a certain point, I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Even before the announcement, Obama had done more to promote gay causes than any other U.S. President. But until Wednesday, he had disappointed many supporters by opposing same-sex marriage, even as he supported civil unions and pushed policies that reversed discrimination against gays. His stance on the topic — his views were “evolving,” he said – was widely considered a hedge to avoid reigniting the culture wars during a tense campaign season. “I had hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient,” Obama said Wednesday. Despite his personal shift, Obama said Wednsday he still supports states’ right to decide the issue.

The President’s waffling did little to deter gay donors, who are donating millions to his fight against Mitt Romney. But Obama’s advisers may have decided it was unsustainable. Supporters and the media have clamored for Obama to clarify his stance in the wake of statements by Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan in support of gay marriage. And his muddled message clashed with the image his aides want to nurture, of a President driven by moral imperatives and strong convictions rather than political headwinds.

For his part, Romney reaffirmed in an interview with a Colorado television station earlier Wednesday that he opposed the practice. “When these issues were raised in my state of Massachusetts, I indicated my view, which is I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender, and I do not favor civil unions if they are identical to marriage other than by name,” Romney said. “My view is the domestic partnership benefits, hospital visitation rights, and the like are appropriate, but that the others are not.” Romney has also pledged to support a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

It seems crude to bring up electoral politics in a moment of special resonance for millions of Americans. But Obama’s vacillations on gay marriage have always been inextricably tied to his political interests.

In 1996, while running for the Illinois state senate, Obama stated on a candidate questionnaire that he “favor[ed] legalizing same-sex marriage, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” By 2004, the year he burst onto the national stage with a stirring convention speech whose post-partisan themes exalted political independence, he had arrived at the belief that such arrangements contravened his “religious faith.” When he ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 2008, he supported civil unions. Midway through his first term, he began signaling that his position was “evolving.”

Conservative fever dreams about Obama becoming unhinged in a second term – wherein the President would steal their guns, trample liberties and so forth – have always been rooted in little more than paranoia. Gay marriage is an exception. Obama’s words and deeds in his first term have suggested he might back legalization of gay marriage in his second, when he no longer needed to keep an eye on the polls. The President began his career as a proponent of marriage equality, and has taken numerous steps during his Oval Office tenure to eradicate discrimination against gays, including instructing the Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act to backing the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Does it matter to gay rights activists that Obama was dragged to a momentous declaration by external pressures? Not one iota. “Everybody in politics, and in life, is entitled to their journey on this issue,” says Richard Socarides, a Democratic strategist and founder of the gay-rights organization Equality Matters. Obama’s journey just happened to be driven by political concerns.

Gay-marriage advocates hailed the decision as a pivotal victory in an ongoing fight. “The President’s support marks a historic turning point for the freedom to marry movement,” said Evan Wolfson, founder of the gay-rights group Freedom to Marry. “Yet there is much left to be done.  Forty-four states continue to exclude same-sex couples from marriage and because of the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the civil marriages of thousands of same-sex couples are not respected by the federal government, thus depriving families of a crucial safety-net of federal protections and responsibilities. It is time to repeal discriminatory laws that hurt families and help no one and speed passage of freedom to marry laws throughout the country.”

As Wolfson argues, the effect of Obama’s endorsement is largely symbolic. As we have seen throughout his Administration, the bully pulpit of the presidency is a powerful way to urge change, but it does not effect change on its own. That is up to the states. Whether Obama’s decision leaves him more vulnerable in an election year will be a matter of fevered speculation in the coming weeks.
There is reason to believe – as the White House probably does – that the blowback in swing states will be less severe than some predict. “Ultimately, I think it’s going to be a wash,” says Tom Jensen, a Democratic pollster based in North Carolina, which on Tuesday passed a ban on civil unions and gay marriage in a landslide. While backing gay marriage could cost Obama votes from socially conservative Latinos or older, blue-collar Democrats, the majority of people who oppose gay rights already erroneously believed that Obama was a proponent of gay marriage, Jensen notes.

North Carolina’s ban, which socially conservative blacks joined Republicans in backing, maintained gay marriage’s poor electoral record. The topic has appeared 32 times on state ballots since 1998, and voters have opposed it everytime – including in comparatively progressive states like California and Oregon.

But attitudes toward gay marriages have shifted sharply during the past decade. In 2001, as a Pew study shows, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a massive 57% to 35% margin. Today the U.S. is effectively split; last year, a Gallup poll revealed, for the first time, that a majority of Americans supported marriage equality. The concept is overwhelmingly backed by young voters who often skip state ballot initiatives — a fact that may help account for the gay-rights lobby’s miserable showing at the ballot box over the years. At the same time, polls have a history of overestimating levels of support for gay marriage, a fact Jensen chalks up to respondents’ desire to conceal their biases.

“Obama’s going to sink or swim on the economy,” he says. “I just don’t think many people are going to be voting on gay marriage this fall.” In the end, the President’s position on gay marriage may not have much affect on his political fortunes, or the legal rights of gays living in states where same-sex marriage is outlawed. But it is nonetheless a momentous milestone for millions of Americans.