President Obama made headlines in 2012 by announcing his support for same-sex marriage after an 18-month “evolution” on the issue, but a new book from his former top adviser says he actually held that view for years and was previously misstating his position to the American public.
In his new book, “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics,” Obama political strategist David Axelrod says his former boss had supported same-sex marriage since at least the time of his first presidential campaign in 2008.
After an event in 2008 in which Obama stated his opposition to same-sex marriage, Obama confided to Axelrod, “I’m just not very good at bullshitting,” according to an excerpt from the book published on Time magazine’s website. At the time, Obama’s stated position was that he favored civil unions, not same-sex marriage, although he supported the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
The idea that Obama supported same-sex marriage at that time is consistent with his stated views while running to become an Illinois state senator. In a 1996 questionnaire from the Chicago-based LGBT newspaper now known as Windy City Times, Obama wrote, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”
But since he undertook his campaign to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate in 2004 and his initial campaign for president in 2008, Obama had declined to support same-sex marriage. During a forum at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, Obama said that marriage is a “sacred union” and “God’s in the mix.”
It wasn’t until 2010 in response to a question from progressive activist Joe Sudbay, then a blogger for AMERICAblog, that Obama first said his views on same-sex marriage could “evolve.” For 18 months until his 2012 announcement, Obama declined to say whether his views had changed when asked in media interviews, and former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had no updates when repeatedly asked by the Washington Blade.
Axelrod writes that he advised Obama to oppose same-sex marriage because it wasn’t a politically sound position and black churches were strongly opposed to gay nuptials. Although Obama accepted that advice, Axelrod said Obama was “champing at the bit” to come out in favor of marriage equality.
“Yet if Obama’s views were ‘evolving’ publicly, they were fully evolved behind closed doors,” Axelrod writes. “The president was champing at the bit to announce his support for the right of gay and lesbian couples to wed—and having watched him struggle with this issue for years, I was ready, too.”
The notion that Obama secretly supported same-sex marriage before his 2012 interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts isn’t new.
On the day he came out for same-sex marriage, senior administration officials told the Washington Blade Obama had “evolved” months before the announcement and was planning to say something before the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Vice President Joseph Biden saying days before Obama’s announcement on “Meet the Press” that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage simply accelerated the move.
Under questioning from The Hill’s Justin Sink, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday he wouldn’t disagree with Axelrod’s depiction of events in the new book.
“What I can tell you is that I have not had an opportunity to read all 520 pages of Mr. Axelrod’s book,” Earnest said. “It does come highly recommended so hopefully I’ll get a chance to do so. The firsthand account that he provides in the book is not one that I would disagree with or quibble with. He obviously is sharing his views as he remembers them and sometimes his perspective is informed by his up-close, front-row seat to history.”
But Earnest maintained that, like for many Americans, Obama underwent a process of evolution before coming to support same-sex marriage.
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the president’s evolution on these issues, and I think it’s consistent with the kind of evolution that people all across the country have gone as it relates to this topic, and I don’t think I have whole lot more to contribute,” Earnest said.
Pressed on whether Obama intentionally misrepresented his position and contributed to cynicism about the political process by withholding his views, Earnest touted the boldness of Obama’s announcement in 2012.
“That was viewed as a pretty controversial political statement,” Earnest said. “There were all kinds of questions from many people in this room that sort of wondered whether or not the president would pay a political price just months before a national election by indicating that he was willing to support gays who wanted to marry. I think that’s an indication that the president was not the first person to articulate this position, but certainly was at the beginning of a broader change that we saw all across the country.”
Earnest continued to talk about Obama’s record on LGBT issues as an example of his commitment to “fighting for justice for all Americans.”
“From ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ to writing the executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against their employees regardless of who they love or for who they love, or for speaking out so boldly in support of gay marriage that the president has time and again been somebody’s who been fighting for justice and equality, and that, I think, will be one of the most important part’s of this president’s legacy,” Earnest said.
Asked whether there’s no cynicism about misstating views on one of the biggest civil rights issues facing the country, Earnest replied, “I think the president’s record on these issues speaks to this even better than I possibly could.”
In an interview with Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith, Obama himself addressed Axelrod’s book, saying he thinks his former adviser was mistaken about his views.
“I think David is mixing up my personal feelings with my position on the issue,” Obama said. “I always felt that same-sex couples should be able to enjoy the same rights, legally, as anybody else, and so it was frustrating to me not to, I think, be able to square that with what were a whole bunch of religious sensitivities out there.”
Responding to the 1996 questionnaire, Obama said that was an example of the issues with which he was struggling at the time.
“I think the notion that somehow I was always in favor of marriage per se isn’t quite accurate,” Obama said. “The old questionnaire … is an example of struggling with what was a real issue at the time, which is, how do you make sure that people’s rights are enjoyed and these religious sensitivities were taken into account?”