Pressure intensified on President Obama to endorse marriage equality this week as he prepared to travel to New York for an LGBT campaign fundraiser just as the state legislature was debating a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.
Since October, Obama has said he could “evolve” on the issue of same-sex marriage and noted that he has many friends in committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. But he has yet to endorse the right of gay couples to marry. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama said he believes marriage is between one man and one woman, but backed the idea of civil unions for same-sex couples.
Although Obama’s LGBT supporters overlooked his opposition to same-sex marriage in 2008, the situation in 2012 has changed to the point that merely “wrestling” with the issue will no longer suffice for many.
Over the course of this year, at least six national polls have found majority support for same-sex marriage. For example, a Gallup poll published on May 20 found that 53 percent of Americans support marriage equality. The poll found an increase of 9 percentage points in support of same-sex marriage since last year, which was the largest year-to-year shift measured since 2004 when Gallup started polling on the issue.
When Obama first started running for president, gay couples could only marry in Massachusetts. Now four additional states and D.C. have legalized same-sex marriage. A Republican-controlled State Senate in New York could legalize same-sex marriage — or at least come close to legalizing it — by the end of the week, which would make same-sex marriage legal in the nation’s third most populous state.
Obama’s positions on other issues related to same-sex marriage don’t seem to square with his opposition to allowing gay couples to marry. Even during his presidential campaign, Obama called for full legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. In February, the president said he determined the anti-gay statute was unconstitutional and that he would no longer defend the law against litigation in court.
Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters, said Obama should “stop trying to have it both ways” by remaining in opposition to same-sex marriage while at the same time saying his position could evolve as he demonstrates support for married same-sex couples in other ways.
“When he says his position is ‘evolving,’ he’s not for same-sex marriage or against it,” Socarides said. “If the president wants to be on the right side of history, he needs to start leading on this issue now, or he’s going to be left in the dust by other progressive leaders who are already on board.”
Socarides said Obama may have gotten off to a slow start with LGBT rights at the beginning of his administration, but has since been “making very good, important, steady, important progress” with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the discontinuation of the legal defense of DOMA. An endorsement for same-sex marriage, Socarides said, would build on the progress made in the past six months.
Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said Obama is ‘”lagging behind the American people” by not yet endorsing same-sex marriage when a majority of Americans now support the concept.
“One of the important duties of a president is to lead and particularly stand up for the full inclusion, protection and equality of all Americans,” Wolfson said. “We look to our president to stand firm for the Constitution’s guarantees for liberty and equality. When the government itself is the major discriminator, as it is in the denial of marriage, it’s especially important for the president to help guide the country in the right direction.”
Observers are saying Obama needs to come out for same-sex marriage to conform to the rest of his positions — or risk coming off as inauthentic to voters.
Socarides said the president’s position is “so contrary to everything else he stands for in terms of the expansion of rights and responsibilities for all Americans” and coming out for marriage equality would make his views consistent.
“If I were advising the president, I would say his position now does not seem terribly authentic, and authenticity is highly valued in presidents,” Socarides said.
Wolfson said the position Obama has eked so far on same-sex marriage is becoming “increasingly incoherent and very inauthentic.”
“That’s not what a president, whose support comes from people who believe in him wants to see,” Wolfson said. “President Obama’s hesitation in outright supporting the freedom to marry is the one jarring false note in his dialogue with the American people. Although this question of the freedom to marry is not the thing most people will cast their vote on, no politician wants to have inauthenticity and the doubts that it spreads begin to take root.”
But what is perhaps most dogging Obama regarding marriage is his early support for the right of gay couples to marry. In 1996, when he was running to become an Illinois state senator, Obama stated in a questionnaire response to what is now the Windy City Times newspaper that he supports same-sex marriage. The future president wrote, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”
Last week, during a question-and-answer session at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis, the 1996 questionnaire received renewed attention when White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer suggested the questionnaire response was fake when he said the survey “was actually filled out by someone else, not the president.”
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, later issued a statement clarifying that Pfeiffer “was not familiar with the history of the questionnaire.”
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney asserted Pfeiffer had been mistaken last week when talking about the 1996 statement under questioning from the Washington Blade.
“I think you know because you’ve read it multiple times since then that we’ve corrected it beginning Friday that he — that that is not the case, that he was mistaking that with another questionnaire,” Carney said. “The president’s position on gay marriage has been clear since ’08 — is clear, again, since he’s been president.”
The White House hasn’t provided an explanation on the record for why the president expressed support in 1996 for same-sex marriage, then later changed his position to oppose it. According to a report on Sunday in the New York Times, White House officials have said that Obama “was really referring to civil unions,” although no on-the-record source is identified in the article for the remarks.
Carney said on Monday that he doesn’t know if the president supported same-sex marriage in 1996, but reiterated that Obama has opposed gay nuptials since he made his bid for the White House, and that his views are evolving. Still, Carney said he believed the president, in fact, signed the questionnaire response from that time.
“What I know is what his position was during the campaign and what it is now,” Carney said. “He’s been very clear about it. He was very clear in the campaign. He was very clear about the fact that his position on the views — that it’s evolving. And I really don’t have anything to add to it.”
Obama’s shifting views on same-sex marriage could plague him as campaign season starts for the 2012 election and he seeks support and donations from the LGBT community. On Thursday, Obama was set to headline a $1,250 a plate fundraiser, titled “Gala with the Gay Community,” with LGBT donors in New York City. Next week, the president is set to commemorate June as Pride month with a reception at the White House.
It remains to be seen whether Obama’s LGBT supporters from the 2008 election will continue to back the president with the same gusto in 2012 — of if they’ll stay home on Election Day because they feel Obama doesn’t support them on a fundamental right.
Asked by the Blade on Monday whether Obama was selling these audiences short by seeking their support for his campaign and not supporting their right to marry, Carney replied, “I think you know that this president is very supportive of and strong on LGBT rights. And his record is significant with regard to that. He’s been very clear about his position on gay marriage, he’s been very clear about how that position is evolving. I don’t have any new announcements to make, but I think you know his record, and he’s proud of it.”
Advocates say an endorsement of same-sex marriage would help seal the deal for LGBT supporters for the president’s re-election campaign.
Wolfson said coming out for same-sex marriage would “energize and excite those who believe in equality and inclusion,” particularly younger voters, in addition to independents who, according to polls, now support same-sex marriage.
“This is a happy instance where doing the right thing is also doing the right thing politically,” Wolfson said. “President Obama has much to gain and little to lose by completing his journey and outright supporting the freedom to marry.”
Beyond showing solidarity with the LGBT community, Socarides said the courts and state legislatures are looking to the president in deciding whether or not to overturn statues prohibiting gay nuptials or to grant same-sex couples the right to marry.
“As president, he’s capable of shaping the debate and controlling the agenda,” Socarides said. “I think that for those reasons alone it’s important. I also think that as leader of the country, he often reflects where the national consensus is, or where it’s headed, and I think that courts will look to that as well as state legislatures. He’s the most important leader in the country, and his views are important even though, obviously, him saying he supports it won’t make it the law everywhere.”
Still, Socarides expressed skepticism that Obama would, in fact, make this change because he said LGBT people seeking additional rights have limited options in the presidential election.
“I don’t believe that there will be substantial political consequences for him to stay in this non-committal position,” Socarides said. “I think the alternatives are so limited, and he’s also done a number of important things, so I don’t there will be any political consequences. And that is probably why he is going to hang out where he is through the 2012 election.”
Nonetheless, hope pervades in some circles that Obama will complete his evolution to come out in favor of same-sex marriage in time for the 2012 election.
The Times article from Monday reported that one Democratic strategist close to the White House, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said senior advisers “are looking at the tactics of how this might be done if the president chose to do it.”
“This is clearly a president who is interested in making big historical changes,” the Democratic strategist was quoted as saying. “I think this issue has moved into that context for him.”
According to the Times, gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he was asked this year by a top adviser to the president what the impact would be if Obama came out for same-sex marriage. Frank reportedly wouldn’t identify the adviser.
But Socarides said he doesn’t believe this reporting indicates any serious consideration in the administration about Obama coming out for marriage equality — although he left the door open for a potential surprise from the president.
“I don’t put much credence in those reports,” Socarides said. “I think they plan for all kinds of contingencies, but I would be surprised. But you know, he surprised me before, so maybe I’ll be surprised.”