President Barack Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage, ending questions about where he stood on an issue that remains divisive in the U.S. and moving it to the forefront of the presidential election campaign.
Obama’s remarks, the first time he’s voiced direct support for making gay marriage legal, came in an interview with ABC News scheduled after his vice president and a Cabinet member said they support letting same-sex couples marry. He called it a personal position and said that states should decide how their own laws will treat the issue.
The president said he was moved by seeing same-sex couples in long-term relationships and gays serving in the military who aren’t able to commit themselves in marriage.
“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 in an excerpt of the interview broadcast by the network.
His statement comes amid a confluence of state-level measures on same-sex marriage and fundraising events with gay activists for his re-election campaign. It also sets a contrast with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who reaffirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage during a campaign stop this afternoon in Oklahoma City.
“I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman,” the former Massachusetts governor said in response to a question. “This is a very tender and sensitive topic, as are many topics, but I have the same view that I’ve had since running for office.”
The president has been under pressure from gay-rights groups to forcefully endorse gay marriage after Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in the past week that they supported it.
“That was about as clear a statement as we could have asked for, I’m rather astounded,” said John Aravosis, a 2008 Obama supporter and gay rights activists.
When he ran for president in 2008, Obama opposed same-sex marriage. His position since late 2010 has been that his views were “evolving.” In office he’s promoted policies that advance the rights of gays, including repealing the military’s ban on openly gay service members and giving same-sex partners more equal treatment in areas such as medical decisions.
Obama’s critics said they welcomed his declaration.
Ralph Reed, an opponent of gay marriage and founder of the Duluth, Georgia-based Faith and Freedom Coalition said Obama’s statement today is “a gift” to Romney’s campaign.
Reed said it will “energize the opposition” in battleground states such as Virginia, Florida and Ohio, where conservative voters have helped pass amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
“This is not going to be helpful to the president or his re-election campaign,” Reed said in an interview.
Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, said the debate will fade and the economy will return as the dominant issue in the November election.
“Culturally conservative older people won’t agree with the president, most of those people wouldn’t vote for him in November anyway,” Rothenberg said. Younger people who feel passionately about the gay rights would likely have voted for Obama even if he hadn’t come out in support of same-sex marriage, he said.
While opinion polls show Americans increasingly approve of same-sex marriage, it remains unpopular in several battleground states as Obama prepares to face voters in November. North Carolinians yesterday voted to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage, and Republicans in the Colorado House killed a measure to allow civil unions.
Both are states Obama won in 2008 and they will be in play in his 2012 campaign against Romney, who supports amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage. The issue also is divisive in the black and Hispanic communities, two key constituencies for Obama.
Obama previously cited his Christian faith for his opposition to same-sex marriage. He invoked that faith again today in explaining his change, saying he recognized that his position may “put us at odds with the views of others.”
“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,” he said.
Obama came to his decision over the last several months and began discussing how to make it public with a circle of about a half dozen of his closest advisers, according to administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about the internal deliberations.
The president intended to speak publicly about his change before the Democratic nominating convention in September. The debate in the White House was about timing, the officials said.
Biden’s remarks in a May 6 broadcast of NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he is “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage forced the timetable, the officials said. Obama’s interview with ABC was arranged yesterday.
The officials said Obama’s political team concluded gay marriage as an issue wouldn’t be a major driver of votes in November. Obama isn’t planning to propose any federal action and wants to leave the issue to states to decide, they said.
Same-sex marriage currently is legal in six states and Washington D.C. Maryland and Washington state have passed laws allowing gay marriage that haven’t yet taken effect. Thirty-eight states have laws or constitutional provisions limiting marriage to relationships between a man and a woman, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Among the states where it is legal is New York, and Obama was encouraged by the way the debate played out there last year, the administration officials said.
The issue is working its way toward the Supreme Court and may come before the justices in the nine-month term that starts in October. In February a federal appeals court struck down California’s Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage, as unconstitutional.
In a separate line of cases, gay-rights advocates are challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex spouses. The Obama administration said last year it will no longer defend that statute in court.
Public support is moving toward support for recognition of same-sex unions. In a March 7-10 ABC/Washington Post poll, 52 percent said it should be legal for gays to marry, with 43 percent saying it should be illegal. In a February 2010 poll, 47 percent said same-sex marriage should be legal.
Against that backdrop, Obama plans at least two fundraisers with gay rights activists, the first on May 14 in New York featuring pop singer Ricky Martin. The second is scheduled for June 6 in Los Angeles.