WASHINGTON — President Obama’s decision to endorse same-sex marriage staked out a stance that carries uncertain political risks but one he said was rooted in the biblical admonition “to treat others the way you would want to be treated.”
Obama’s endorsement Wednesday, a milestone for the gay rights movement, was the first from a sitting president and a potentially powerful tail wind for a cause still struggling for electoral approval. It comes as the country remains divided over whether same-sex marriages should have the same recognition and legal standing as traditional ones, and six months before an election expected to be so tight it may hinge on small slices of votes in a handful of key states.
He equivocated for more than a year, saying that his position was “evolving.” More recently, he came under considerable pressure — from his somewhat deflated base and a powerful network of gay donors — to speak his mind before the November election. His announcement was hastened by a similar declaration from Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday, which prompted calls for Obama to speak out or risk falling behind the curve.
“At a certain point, 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 ABC News’ Robin Roberts in an interview hastily arranged by the White House to quiet the fallout from the Biden remarks.
Obama told the"Good Morning America"anchor that he arrived at the decision by talking to gay friends, staff members, his two daughters and his wife, who he said shared his support. His Christian faith and the golden rule factored in. “In the end, the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people,” Obama said.
Obama had cited religion in opposing same-sex marriages as he campaigned for president, but in December 2010 declared his position was evolving. That position was widely viewed as a wink and a nod to supporters of gay rights, who believed the president was withholding a public declaration of support out of concerns about alienating some key voters.
Nationally, a slim majority of voters favors gay marriages, according to most polls — a majority that has been increasing because of shifting attitudes among young people and middle-class voters. Still, religious, African American, Latino and older voters remain more likely to express opposition, and 38 states have adopted prohibitions of same-sex marriage, according the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some Democrats contend that the voters most strongly opposed are unlikely to vote for Obama anyway, adding gay marriage, like abortion, to the list of social issues dividing partisans.
But the president’s announcement is likely to hurt him in the South, where 1 in 3 swing voters strongly opposes gay marriage, a recent Pew Research Center poll found. Just this week, North Carolina, which Obama narrowly won in 2008, approved one of the strongest bans on same-sex unions in the country. The state increasingly appears out of reach for Obama this year.
More crucial to his reelection chances will be the impact in Virginia, where a recent survey showed him with a slight lead over Mitt Romney. Polls in the state show the electorate nearly evenly divided. There’s also a danger of turning off some religious voters, such as white Protestants in the Rust Belt or Catholic Latinos. On the other hand, young voters and strong supporters of gay marriage may be energized.
White House aides believe there’s no way to predict the “crosscurrents,” said a senior administration official who, like others, requested anonymity to be able to discuss internal deliberations.
But Obama’s decision is unleashing a wave of financial support from gay and lesbian donors and is likely to heighten demand for tickets to a June 6 LGBT fundraising gala in Los Angeles featuring the singer Pink.
“Within minutes, people were calling with their credit cards. They’re thrilled,” said Andrew Tobias, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and a top fundraising bundler for Obama. He said one donor pledged $10,000 and decided to fly with his partner from Los Angeles to attend an Obama fundraiser in New York on Monday.
The president’s campaign was quick to capitalize on his decision, sending an email to supporters asking for donations.
On Wednesday, Republican nominee Romney emphasized his consistency on the issue in response to Obama’s changed position.
“I have the same view that I’ve had since running for office,” he said in reaction to the president’s statement. Romney was a staunch advocate of gay rights when he was running for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. But he never endorsed same-sex marriage and later became an outspoken leader of the drive to ban it after a court legalized the practice in Massachusetts.
“My view is that marriage itself is a relationship between a man and a woman, and that’s my own preference,” he told reporters Wednesday. “I know other people have differing views. This is a very tender and sensitive topic, as are many social issues.”
For months, the president’s advisors gave no indication that he planned to reveal a new stance before the November election, believing that Obama’s record on other gay rights issues would suffice to win over an increasingly powerful network of gay donors and other ardent supporters. Obama ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gay soldiers from serving openly and dropped the legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act.
But advisors say the president decided a few weeks ago that he had changed his mind and wanted to make an announcement before the Democratic National Convention in September.
Michelle Obama was a strong influence, administration officials said. She went out of her way to invite gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender couples to events she sponsored for military families.
Several gay staffers work in the West Wing and at least one pair are in a committed relationship and raising children. The Obama daughters also have friends with same-sex parents, whom the first family has gotten to know.
“He was ready,” said a second senior administration official.
Biden’s comments pushed up the timing. The “evolving” stance threatened to undermine not only the president’s standing on gay issues but also his credibility. The president’s foot-dragging on an issue important to his base undoubtedly clashed with his new campaign slogan, “Forward.”
Obama’s announcement was celebrated by gay rights activists and Democratic allies.
“The president’s words will no doubt inspire thousands more conversations around kitchen tables and in church pews,” said Human Right Campaign President Joe Solmonese. “We are confident that our nation will continue to move inexorably toward equality.”
Obama’s new position is also a marker in his party’s evolution and solidifies, for now, a clear partisan divide on gay rights. For more than a decade, leading Republicans and Democrats had opposed same-sex marriage. Obama has taken multiple stances on the issue. In 1996, as a candidate for the state Senate in Illinois, he told a gay rights group that he favored same-sex marriages and would fight efforts to block them. As a candidate for the Senate in 2004, Obama said he believed marriage is between a man and a woman, citing his faith as the reason for that belief.
In 2008, he repeated that assertion to influential evangelical pastor Rick Warren, adding: “For me as a Christian it’s also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.” But Obama also said he would not support an amendment to put that definition in the Constitution.
Defining marriage “has been a matter of state law. That has been our tradition,” he said. At the same time, Obama opposed a California ballot initiative outlawing same-sex marriage because it was “divisive and discriminatory.”
Obama had plenty of company in such murky waters. But since then, Obama’s party has steadily moved toward support for gay marriage.
L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is the chairman of the party’s convention, was among the first to call on Democrats to add support for same-sex marriage to the party platform. Obama’s announcement probably heads off an awkward battle over that issue at the convention.
Time staff writers Michael Finnegan, Matea Gold, Michael A. Memoli, Joseph Tanfani and Paul West contributed to this report.