President Obama on Wednesday endorsed the right of gays to marry, finally ending his hedging on an issue that divides the country and concluding the most public and protracted political evolution in recent memory. Speaking out the day after North Carolina voters overwhelmingly adopted a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriages in the state, the president said it was time for him to take a stand.
(RELATED: Where Is Same-Sex Marriage Legal?)
In an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News, Obama said, “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.” He said he reached this position after talking to friends and neighbors and observing gay members of his own staff “who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships” and who are raising children. He said he also thought about “those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained ... because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage.”
Obama acknowledged that he has taken a long time reaching this position, which is at odds with his stance when he ran for the Senate in 2004 and for president in 2008. In an interview in Chicago in 2004, he said, “What I believe is that marriage is between a man and a woman.... What I believe, in my faith, is that a man and a woman, when they get married, are performing something before God, and it’s not simply two persons who are meeting.” In both campaigns, he endorsed civil unions, believing that they would provide the rights he was concerned about such as the right to visit a partner in a hospital.
(RELATED: Romney Says He's Against Same-Sex Marriage)
But he told ABC that he had come to believe civil unions did not go far enough. “I’ve always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly, and equally,” he said, adding, “I’ve stood on the side of broader equality for the [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community. And I hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought civil unions should be sufficient…. I was sensitive to the fact that to a lot of people, you know, the word marriage was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth.”
The White House had hoped to make it through the fall campaign without detouring from the president’s economic message with a journey down the road into a social issue fraught with religious and cultural danger and one that would play into the Republican efforts to brand him as more liberal than the country. He has deflected questions for more than a year, saying he was “evolving” on the issue.
But he was left with little choice after his own vice president, who also previously had gone only as far as civil unions, staked out a bolder pro-marriage position on Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. Vice President Joe Biden said, “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”
Biden’s comment triggered an unexpected political firestorm that forced Obama’s hand. It also likely complicates his efforts to win at least two of the battleground states—North Carolina, which spoke in a loud voice at odds with the president’s new position; and Colorado, where it is not considered mainstream. Additionally, it stands as a sharp contrast with the views of likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, who was in Colorado on Wednesday, praising the failure of a ballot measure that would have allowed same-sex civil unions in the state. Romney stressed that he unequivocally opposes “marriage between people of the same gender.”
“If a civil union is identical to marriage other than in the name, I don’t support that,” Romney told a local television station.
(RELATED: The Demographics of Gay Marriage)
Obama’s interview will air on ABC’s Good Morning America on Thursday. Excerpts will also be broadcast on Wednesday night on ABC’s World News with Diane Sawyer.
In the initial ABC excerpts, the president called his new view a personal position, stating that he still believes each state needs to make its own decision. But he said he believes Americans will become more comfortable with the notion of same-sex marriages over time, citing his own daughters’ comfort. “Some of this,” he said, “is also generational…. When I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same-sex equality or, you know, sexual orientation that they believe in equality…. You know, Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples…. It wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them and frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.”
Polls support the president’s argument that younger voters are comfortable with a notion that would have seemed unthinkable only a decade ago. But the polls also demonstrate that there is risk in his new position, because another key part of Obama’s coalition is decidedly opposed to redefining marriage. African-Americans, often led by black church ministers, have been on the side of traditional marriage every time a state has held a referendum.
He told ABC's Roberts he had discussed the issue with first lady Michelle Obama. “She feels the same way that I do,” Obama said. “… We are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president.”
(RELATED: Do Gay People Vote as a Bloc?)
Obama first referred to his position as "evolving" in December 2010 when he told ABC’s Jake Tapper, “My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this.”
Now that the struggle has ended, the White House and the president’s political team in Chicago are braced for the political fallout, cautiously confident that it will not alter the fundamental political dynamic for the showdown with Romney. The praise from Democrats and liberals was quick. “Isn’t it great?” asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, hailed what he called “a historic day,” adding, “The president's support for marriage equality is great news that's likely to energize progressive activists across the country.”
Sarah Huisenga contributed.