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. —Barack Obama
A frenzied week of speculation and punditry on gay marriage reached its apex Wednesday when President Barack Obama stated his support for gay marriage in an interview with ABC, ending years of equivocation and what he self-described as an "evolving" position.
“At a certain point," 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."
“I had hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” Mr. Obama said. “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word marriage was something that invokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs."
Obama announced his position after three days of major news about the issue. First, Vice President Joe Biden declared Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press that he was "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage.
“Look, I am vice president of the United States of America,” Biden said. “The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual — men and women marrying — are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.”
This was followed on Monday by Arne Duncan, secretary of Education, who declared "I do," when asked by Joe Scarborough if he supported gay marriage. No pun apparently intended.
All of this was brought to a head on Tuesday when North Carolina residents voted overwhelmingly to elevate their traditional marriage law to state constitutional status, over strong objections from the Obama campaign. Obama expressed disappointment in the results earlier Wednesday, then set up the interview with ABC.
Obama said his Christian faith was a factor in his decision.
“We are both practicing Christians," he said, referring to himself and his wife, Michelle, "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,” he said. “Treat others the way you would want to be treated.”
In a related event, a bill that would have allowed civil unions for same-sex couples in Colorado died in the Legislature late Tuesday night.
The conventional wisdom had been that the president would continue to wiggle out of the issue, maintaining his Hamlet imitation while allowing his subordinates to wink at gay marriage supporters.
Some concern centered on the president's possible exposure among black voters, who polling data suggest strongly oppose gay marriage. But as Jonathan Capehart observed in the Washington Post, black voters are so solidly behind Obama that the impact of this one issue will hardly register.
Whether Biden's statement on Sunday was planned by the White House or an accidental outburst in patented Biden tradition, its effect seems to have paved the way for Obama to finally embrace what most observers already clearly understood.
Implications for November's election remain murky.
On the one hand, the death of the civil unions bill in Colorado and the North Carolina vote to affirm traditional marriage and ban civil unions and domestic partnerships seem in line with the fact that about 30 states maintain marriage as between a man a woman via constitutional amendments another dozen states do so by state statutes.
On the other hand, a Gallup poll released on Tuesday found that 50 percent of Americans support gay marriage, down from 53 percent last year but the second straight time support for same-sex marriage had reached 50 percent or more, a development that certainly has played into the president's "evolution."
The Gallup results parallel an ABC poll from last year, which showed significant shifts in favor of gay marriage over a five-year span. Particularly notable is the age groupings, which show 68 percent of the 18-29 age group favor it, as do 65 percent of those ages 30-39 and 52 percent of Americans between 40 and 49.
The polling trajectory certainly carries an aura of political destiny. The image of Obama waiting impatiently for societal change so he could complete his own policy evolution is widespread. As recently as Monday, Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post predicted that within three years, when “unburdened by the concerns about reelection,” Obama would find his resting place. But Cillizza was emphatic that the “final step in the evolution simply will not happen between now and November.” So much for predictions.
Obama got zinged from an unexpected corner on Tuesday, when the Columbia Journalism Review noted the close parallel between the president and challenger Mitt Romney. Why, Brandon Nyhan asked, does Obama get to “evolve” when Romney is only allowed to “flip flop.”
Nyhan points out that both men began their political careers in states that called for a left tilt and then had to adjust rightward to run nationally. Nyhan notes that Obama’s “freakishly easy” 2004 Senate race allowed him to skip away from his record in 2008. “By contrast, Romney has been forced to revise his initially moderate positions under the hot lights of the 2008 and 2012 presidential primary campaigns, which caused him to develop a reputation as a flip-flopper with no ‘core.’”
Nyhan does stop short of the universal critique of conservative pundits, namely that the differences in critique reflects not so much circumstances as a press corps that in 2008 was openly in the tank for Obama.
Sure enough, CNN Religion Editor Dan Gilgoff gave Romney the benefit of "evolving" in a piece Wednesday about Obama's announcement on gay marriage. "Romney, a Mormon who has evolved to a more conservative position on hot button social issues, has struggled with his party's largely evangelical conservative base in the primaries," Gilgoff wrote. "But (religious conservative Ralph) Reed said Obama’s gay marriage support would help Romney in many battleground states."
Romney reiterated his position Wednesday to a Fox News television reporter in Colorado before a campaign event saying, "Well when these issues were raised in my state of Massachusetts, I indicated my view, which is I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender, and I do not favor civil unions if they are identical to marriage other than by name.”
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at [email protected].