There are pretty much two ways to interpret Obama's brief, heckled remarks at an LGBT donor event in New York City on Thursday night. Either you do a deep read, staring at the quotes like tea leaves, and identify the spot there, where Obama made the Lady Gaga reference, and there, where he said "I promise," and decide that he really does support gay marriage. Or you can read the speech at face-value and realize that whether he supports it or not, he's not going to take a stand on the issue.
For over a week now, New York State lawmakers have been at an impasse in the debate same-sex marriage legislation. The Republican senators conferenced over the legislation for the first time Thursday afternoon, but inevitably, stalled while discussing other bills and did not address same-sex marriage on the floor. The Albany Times Union reported, "After preparing for an all-night session, legislators left the Capitol without action on major issues, continuing a week in which broad agreements failed to translate to legislative action" The New York Times reports that when they adjourned for the night on Thursday, the senators planned to return to the Capitol at 10 a.m. on Friday.
The audience at the banquet hall of the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan, where people paid anywhere from $1,250 to over $30,000 a head to attend, wanted strong leadership. Obama started off his 25-minutes speech with a joke about his grey hair, a symbolic reminder of his maturing as a leader. The president then covered a number of accomplishments his administration had earned for the gay and lesbian community, like extending visitation rights for gay couples and a comprehensive HIV/AIDS strategy. Then as soon as he mentioned federal agencies treating gay couples and straight couples the same--the heckling started.
Some of the choice quotes show how Obama, like New York State Senators, danced around the issue of same-sex marriage. He offered quotable quotes, praised the fight for justice, but didn't provide a roadmap. On one hand, it was an effective political speech for inspiring hope without actually backing himself into a corner on the issue. On the other hand, the attendees did not seem terribly satisfied. We've left in the reported audience reactions included in the official transcript for effect. Obama makes a Lady Gaga reference and a birther joke in the same breath:
Ever since I entered into public life, ever since I have a memory about what my mother taught me, and my grandparents taught me, I believed that discriminating against people was wrong. I had no choice. I was born that way. (Laughter and applause.) In Hawaii. (Applause.) … I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country. (Applause.)
Obama is rattled when impatient dinner-goers want him to get to the point:
That’s why I ordered federal agencies to extend the same benefits to gay couples that go to straight couples wherever possible. That's why we’re going to keep fighting until the law no longer --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Marriage.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Marriage. Marriage. Marriage.
THE PRESIDENT: I heard you guys. (Laughter.) Believe it or not, I anticipated that somebody might -- (Laughter and applause.) -- Where was I? (Laughter.)
Obama offers a concession, repeating his desire to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which he calls "wrong" and "unfair." The president then finally announces that he won't intervene in the New York debate:
Now, part of the reason that DOMA doesn't make sense is that traditionally marriage has been decided by the states. And right now I understand there’s a little debate going on here in New York -- (laughter) -- about whether to join five other states and D.C. in allowing civil marriage for gay couples. And I want to -- I want to say that under the leadership of Governor Cuomo, with the support of Democrats and Republicans, New York is doing exactly what democracies are supposed to do. There’s a debate; there’s deliberation about what it means here in New York to treat people fairly in the eyes of the law.
Then, in closing, he almost teases the crowd, saying he'll continue to stand beside them in their fight for equality--if they'll help him campaign for reelection:
And that’s the story of progress in America. That’s what all of you represent -- of the stubborn refusal to accept anything less than the best that this country can be. And with your help, if you keep up the fight, and if you will devote your time and your energies to this campaign one more time, I promise you we will write another chapter in that story. And we are going to leave a new generation with a brighter future and a more hopeful future. And I’ll be standing there, right there with you.