President Obama ended his 19-month long evolution on the issue of extending marriage rights to gay couples on Wednesday when he voiced support for marriage equality.
In an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts, Obama endorsed marriage equality after he said he’s “stood on the side of broader equality for the LGBT community,” but “hesitated” on same-sex marriage because he thought “civil unions would be sufficient.”
“I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people the word marriage evokes very powerful traditions,” Obama said.
But after conversations with his own staff members, openly gay and lesbian service members, and discussions with his wife and daughters, Obama said he “just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
The president maintained his views are a personal position, and he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue of same-sex marriage on their own.
LGBT groups praised Obama for becoming the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage as he heads toward the general election.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama “made history” by “boldly stating” gay Americans are entitled to equal rights and that those equal rights can only come through marriage.
“His presidency has shown that our nation can move beyond its shameful history of discrimination and injustice,” Solmonese said. “In him, millions of young Americans have seen that their futures will not be limited by what makes them different. In supporting marriage equality, President Obama extends that message of hope to a generation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, helping them understand that they too can be who they are and flourish as part of the American community.”
Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said Obama joins other figures, such as former President Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden in endorsing same-sex marriage.
“Through thought and conversation about these families and their dreams and challenges, President Obama has reflected on his own values of fairness and respect for others, and completed his journey to support for the freedom to marry,” Wolfson said. “He now becomes the first sitting president to join the majority of Americans whose hearts have opened and minds have changed in favor of the freedom to marry.”
In a sense, Obama’s support for same-sex marriage returns him to a position he stated on the issue in 1996 when running to become an Illinois state senator. In a questionnaire response to what is now the Windy City Times, Obama expressed support for same-sex marriage years before any state in the country legalized it.
“I favor legalizing same-sex marriage, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages,” Obama wrote in a typed letter with his signature at the bottom.
But that support for same-sex marriage vanished when Obama pursued higher office. In the 2008 election, Obama ran for president saying he supported civil unions as the way to extend legal protections to gay couples.
Then-candidate Obama articulated his views on marriage in August 2008 during a forum with pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church, who has been criticized by the LGBT community for his support of California’s Proposition 8.
“I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman,” Obama said. “Now, for me as a Christian, it’s also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”
The situation changed in October 2010. Obama said during an interview with progressive bloggers in response to a question from AMERICAblog’s Joe Sudbay that “attitudes evolve, including mine,” suggesting his views could change to support marriage equality.
But for 19 months the evolution continued. The Washington Blade repeatedly asked White House Press Secretary Jay Carney if Obama had completed his evolution, why he continues to withhold support for marriage equality and when the evolution would come to an end. Virtually every time, Carney responded that he didn’t have any updates to the Blade inquiries.
In June 2010, Obama’s views on marriage made headlines again when New York was set to legalize same-sex marriage and Obama was going to appear at a high-profile LGBT fundraiser. Asked about his views on marriage when New York last year legalized same-sex marriage during a news conference, the president said he wasn’t going to make news. That was the same line he gave most recently when asked about the subject in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
“I’m not going to make news in this publication,” Obama said. “I’ve made clear that the issue of fairness and justice and equality for the LGBT community is very important to me. And I haven’t just talked about it, I’ve acted on it.”
Even though the president had withheld support for marriage equality, Obama has spoken out through a campaign spokesperson against anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives pending before voters in Minnesota and North Carolina, which was approved by voters Tuesday. Obama’s announced support for marriage equality comes after the vote in that state.
The president’s endorsement of same-sex marriage comes as the media have given greater scrutiny to his views and the seeming contradiction of not supporting same-sex marriage, but supporting equal rights for LGBT people.
On Sunday during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Vice President Joe Biden said he’s “absolutely comfortable” with married gay couples having the “exact same rights” as straight couples.
Media outlets and bloggers reported that Biden’s comments were an endorsement of same-sex marriage and that the vice president had become the highest-ranking official to support marriage rights for gay couples.
But the vice president’s office issued a clarification immediately afterward saying Biden, like Obama, is still “evolving” on same-sex marriage.
Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod attempted to mitigate the flurry of media attention that was unleashed following Biden’s remarks, first in a message via Twitter, then telling reporters in a conference call Monday that Biden and Obama were in line.
“I think that they were entirely consistent with the president’s position, which is that couples who are married — whether gay or heterosexual couples — are entitled to the very same rights and very same liberties,” Axelrod said.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney faced a barrage of questions on Biden’s remarks and Obama’s views on same-sex marriage. Why does the president oppose same-sex marriage? If everyone thinks the president supports same-sex marriage, why doesn’t he endorse it?
Carney replied with answers he’s given previously: the president’s record on LGBT issues is noteworthy and substantial; he has no updates on Obama’s personal views; Biden’s belief that the rights of citizens should be protected is consistent with the president’s view.
“I think the president is the right person to describe his own personal views,” Carney said, “He, as you know, said that his views on this were evolving, and I don’t have an update for you on that.”