Obama endorses same-sex marriage
5/9/2012 2:37 PM
Obama endorses same-sex marriage
By Peter Wallsten, Updated: Wednesday, May 9, 2:05 PM
President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage Wednesday, capping days of frenzied speculation about his views and intensifying pressure from gay campaign donors that began with surprising comments on the issue over the weekend by Vice President Biden.
The announcement marked an apparent end to Obama’s self-described “evolution” on the issue.
“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,” Obama told Robin Roberts, in an ABC News interview.
Obama went on to explain that he had “hesitated” on marriage because he thought same-sex unions would be “sufficient” in order to guarantee rights for couples such as hospital visitations. And he said he wanted to be “sensitive” to the fact that for many Americans, the word “marriage” evokes “very powerful positions, religious beliefs and so forth.”
ABC will air the interview on its evening news Wednesday night and on “Good Morning America” Thursday. In a brief special this afternoon, Roberts said that Obama invoked his daughters, and conversations over dinner in which they have said that some of their friends have gay parents.
Asked if he was forced into the announcement because of Biden’s remarks over the weekend, Roberts said that Obama laughed and explained that he and his aides had been engaged in the discussion for some time.
The president has been under intense pressure for his self-described “evolving” position on the issue since Sunday, when NBC aired an interview in which Biden said he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage.
Biden’s comments put Obama on the spot, exposing the president’s previous position to ridicule among gay-rights activists who saw it as a wink-and-nod stance to avoid alienating conservative swing voters as well as African Americans and Latinos key to Obama’s reelection.
The president’s challenge was evident in Tuesday’s vote in North Carolina, one of the campaign’s targeted states, where voters overwhelmingly backed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions.
Obama’s campaign released a statement describing the North Carolina results as “disappointing.”
Obama’s statement was greeted by gay rights supporters as a historic milestone in the history of the movement — an unprecedented moment of validation from the country’s most important political figure.
“Today, President Obama made history by boldly stating that gay and lesbian Americans should be fully and equally part of the fabric of American society and that our families deserve nothing less than the equal respect and recognition that comes through marriage,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group close to the White House. The group’s incoming president, Chad Griffin, a major Obama fundraiser, added that the president’s words “will be celebrated by generations to come.”
At an event at the Oklahoma Republican Party’s headquarters in Oklahoma City, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney responded to the news of Obama’s same-sex marriage shift by reiterating that he himself continues to believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.
“I have the same view on marriage that I had when I was governor and that I’ve expressed many times. I believe that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman,” he said.
The former Massachusetts governor acknowledged that others may have different views and said that “this is a very tender and sensitive topic, as are many social issues.”
He added that decisions on domestic partnership benefits should be left up to the states.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats warmly supported the president’s new position.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the president’s statement “marks progress for the civil rights of LGBT Americans and all Americans,” and added later that “Republicans are standing on the wrong side of history.”
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who in 2008 became the first openly gay man to run for Congress and win, called the president’s announcement “welcome news for American families” and said he looked forward to working with the president “to strengthen the institution of marriage by securing the right of all Americans to marry the person they love.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), whose state has served as a flash point in the gay marriage debate, said the president’s remarks have “nothing to do with politics and it has everything to do with equality.”
Boxer said she had believed Obama when he said that his position was “evolving” on gay marriage, because she herself once only backed permitting domestic partnerships, until the California Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the gay marriage issue should be settled by referendum.
“That was my timetable, that was my home state,” Boxer said. “That’s how I evolved. Vice President Biden evolved on his timetable, and President Obama evolved on his timetable.”
Republicans, not surprisingly, reacted differently Wednesday afternoon.
When told of Obama’s comments, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked, “So he now agrees with his vice president?”
“I agree with the old Barack Obama,” Rubio said.
Obama’s shift Wednesday followed days of frantic phone calls and conversations between campaign officials and leading activists and donors in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Speculation Wednesday focused on how far Obama might be willing to go, particularly given concern among some advisers that a full embrace of same-sex marriage could help stoke conservatives and give presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney a way to consolidate support in a GOP base that remains uneasy about the former Massachusetts governor.
But the calculation has shifted since the Biden remarks put a harsher light on Obama’s efforts to navigate the issue. Suddenly, a president who hoped to portray himself as a confident and steady decision-maker — while painting Romney as a serial flip-flopper — risked looking weak and indecisive.
Obama’s shift reflects a prevailing view on his team that the political risk of alienating anti-gay marriage voters was now superceded by the danger of tainting his image as a strong leader.
His evolving views have moved in both directions over time. As a state senate candidate, he once endorsed gay marriage on a questionnaire, then as a presidential candidate he opposed gay marriage. As president, he has pursued a largely pro-gay rights agenda, repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and declining to argue in court for the Defense of Marriage Act.
“My feelings about this are constantly evolving,” he said in 2010. “I struggle with this. I have friends, I have people who work for me who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions. And they are extraordinary people. And this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about.”
But gay supporters grew angry Sunday after Obama aides tried to tamp down excitement over Biden’s comments and dismiss any suggestion that the vice president’s views differed from those of the president.
At least one in six Obama bundlers are gay, according to a Washington Post count, making it hard for the president to ignore the growing frustrations.
The White House’s attempt to downplay Biden’s remarks and stand by Obama’s “evolving” position marked the second point of tension between the president and his LGBT allies in as many months.
In April, activists were outraged when Obama aides announced that the president had no plans to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Officials said they wanted to focus instead on passing federal legislation, but advocates viewed the position as a dodge, given the unlikelihood that the Republican-led House would consider the measure.
The executive order announcement drew surprising rebukes from some of the White House’s closest LGBT allies, including those at the Center for American Progress and the Human Rights Campaign who have generally defended the administration’s record on gay rights.
In addition, LGBT donors began pressuring the Obama campaign and the White House to reconsider. One major Democratic giver, Jonathan Lewis, indicated that the failure to sign the order has resulted in several givers’ opting not to donate to the pro-Obama super-PAC, Priorities USA, according to The Post’s Greg Sargent.
An adviser to another major LGBT donor said Wednesday that the dual effect of the White House response to Biden’s comments and the executive order meant more donors withholding help, unless Obama shifted on one or both of those issues.
“The top 12 gay and lesbian donors in this country have all maxed out to the president, but they have not played in the super PAC world yet,” this adviser said. “And if there is the expectation that they’re going to, then there will have to be some concrete actions in fairly short order to demonstrate this administration’s desire to keep them included in this campaign.”
The dynamic — and Obama’s decision to sit for the interview Wednesday — underscored how much the president can ill afford to alienate any piece of his base in what is expected to be a tight election.
Another LGBT advocate familiar with White House and campaign deliberations said Wednesday the Biden comments spurred a renewed debate among Obama’s top policy and political advisers about what they could do to satisfy this core constituency. That conversation included marriage and the executive order.
“The conversation is, what can and should we do to quiet the uproar and to get donors back on board,” the advocate said.
Staff writers Ed O’Keefe, Philip Rucker and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.