President Obama made history Wednesday, becoming the first sitting president to come out in support of legal same-sex marriage.
In an interview with ABC News, Obama said, “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.”
The ABC appearance followed several days of amped-up pressure on Obama to change his stance on same-sex marriage after Vice President Biden and members of Obama’s Cabinet expressed their support for legalized marriage between same-sex couples.
More from Obama, from an ABC transcript:
“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, 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.”
ABC reports Obama “still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own.”
Obama’s position on gay marriage has shifted more than once, starting with a 1996 survey in which then-Illinois state Senate candidate Obama checked the box on a questionnaire indicating “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”
In 2011, a White House staffer told progressives gathered at the annual Netroots Nation conference that answer was a fake, and that the survey had been filled out by someone else. In the years following 1996, Obama drove to safer ground for a mainstream politician on same-sex marriage. In 2008, Obama said marriage was between one man and one woman, but that he favored civil unions that would grant same-sex couples all the rights and privileges of marriage, if not the right to the actual legal terminology.
Many of Obama’s supporters believed he was still, at heart, the politician from 1996 even and that he changed his tune publicly to win on the national stage. Obama’s time in the White House gave them reason to believe they were right — Obama ran on and delivered big wins for the LGBT community, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and publicly opposed efforts on the state level to define marriage as only between a man and woman. In terms of a legislative agenda, gay rights groups believe not much will change now that Obama personally and publicly favors same-sex marriage. The real change will be atmospheric: Having the leader of the country as an advocate and a full-throated supporter of marriage equality will invigorate and empower the community, advocates believe.
In late in 2010, Obama took the first step toward Wednesday’s announcement when he told a progressive blogger who asked him about gay marriage that, “attitudes evolve, including mine.” That opened the door to more than a year of questions about the status of that evolution, all of which were shut down or brushed off by the administration. The stance frustrated his supporters and gave Republicans ammunition to accuse Obama of trying to have it both ways.
The structure held until earlier this week, when Biden told “Meet the Press” he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay men and lesbians getting married. The remark was widely perceived as an endorsement of same-sex marriage, and gay rights groups immediately urged the president to follow Biden’s lead despite the insistence of the White House and the Obama campaign that Biden had not said anything new.
Nevertheless, Biden’s appearance on Meet The Press, built pressure on Obama to make his stance clear. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he supported marriage equality the next day, making him the second Obama Cabinet member to say so after Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.
Some believe Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage could be a liability for the president, making it tougher for him to rally certain constituencies that otherwise would likely back him, including the black and white working-class vote, to his cause this fall.
Others say it creates another clear line of distinction for an Obama campaign eager to cast the election as a vote between greatly opposed ideologies. Indeed, Obama’s support for gay marriage puts him just about as far from Mitt Romney as he can get. Romney supports an amendment to the Constitution banning same-sex marriage and on Tuesday night, Romney once again stated his opposition to civil unions as well.
Indeed, the opening weeks of the general election have shown how fraught LGBT rights politics are for the GOP. Romney stood by silently as social conservative criticism over his decision to appoint an openly gay national security spokesperson, Richard Grenell, helped push Grenell out the door after less than a month on the job. The episode proved embarrassing for Romney’s campaign, and Romney stressed that his staff had urged Grenell to stay on board.
National polling shows the public is evenly split when it comes to same-sex marriage. But support has surged in recent years: Only 27 percent favored legal same-sex marriage in 1996, the year Obama indicated his support for it in the survey, compared with 50 percent who favor it today (Gallup has found support as high as 59 percent in recent years).
The politics on the ground show same-sex marriage support still carries huge liabilities, however. That means Obama is taking a political risk, one that will put America’s readiness to evolve along with him toward expanded rights for gays to the test.