Obama’s Gay Marriage Turnabout Forced Public by Biden

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

At a fundraiser with gay activists in New York last June, the day before state legislators passed a same-sex marriage law, President Barack Obama considered the choice they were making. He concluded he’d almost certainly have voted “yes” too.

Conversations with staff, family, friends and supporters also moved him in that direction. So did religious reflection and his sense of shifting public sentiment, said administration officials who insisted on anonymity to describe private discussions about the president’s change on the issue.

Obama reached a turning point early this year and decided to publicly back gay marriage, they said. How and when to do it -- sometime before the Democratic convention in September -- was a closely held discussion involving only about a half-dozen aides. At the end of last week, timing was decided for them.

That was when the president’s advisers first read a transcript of a taped interview Vice President Joe Biden gave to NBC’s “Meet the Press.” In response to a question, Biden said he was “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women are entitled to the same exact rights.”

The president’s advisers knew that Biden, though speaking on his own, would effectively be voicing a new policy when the interview aired on May 6, according to the officials. That set off a weekend of discussions among White House and campaign aides about how best to respond.

‘Consistent’ Views

On May 7, White House press secretary Jay Carney and David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, sought to downplay Biden’s remarks. Both said they were “entirely consistent” with Obama’s expressed views on equal rights for gays. Carney refused to say whether Obama supported legality for same-sex marriage.

“He, as you know, said that his views on this were ‘evolving,’ and I don’t have an update for you on that,” Carney said.

The president’s gay supporters didn’t accept it. Over the next 24 hours, Obama and his team decided it was time. On May 8, before Obama left Washington for a trip to Albany, New York, to talk about the economy, it was settled. His communications office called ABC News to arrange the interview, officials said.

Family Views

In that interview, Obama described having conversations “over the course of several years” with family, friends and neighbors. He said he was moved by seeing members of his staff who are in long-term same-sex 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 last night. The full interview is scheduled to air on the “Good Morning America” program today.

Obama’s shift also involved religious reflection, conversations with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, and an awareness of shifting public and generational sentiment.

“Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples,” Obama said referring to his daughters. “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.”

Changing Views

Obama said the first lady “feels the same way that I do.”

According to people familiar with the discussions at the White House, longtime adviser Valerie Jarrett was among those in the president’s inner circle encouraging him to speak directly about his beliefs.

When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama said that he believed marriage is between a man and a woman, the same position now taken by his opponent in the 2012 presidential race, Republican Mitt Romney. Obama said that didn’t preclude civil unions for same-sex couple or equal rights for gays.

He held that position when running for president in 2008. In office, he promoted policies that advanced 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.

Midway through his term, Obama began to shift. At a news conference on Dec. 22, 2010, Obama talked about gay friends and the fact that his support for civil unions wasn’t enough from their perspective.

‘Constantly Evolving’

“My feelings about this are constantly evolving,” Obama said. “This is something that we’re going to continue to debate and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward.”

With the decision made public, Obama may face electoral consequences. 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 this week vote to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage, and Republicans in the Colorado House killed a measure to allow civil unions.

One of the administration officials argued that the impact of Obama’s declaration will be minimized because many Americans already assumed Obama backed gay marriage privately.

By casting his stance as a personal opinion, and making clear he believes marriage is an issue for states to decide and not the president, advisers said Obama may minimize voter discomfort.

He may also benefit from the fact that prominent Republicans have backed gay marriage, including former first lady Laura Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Ken Mehlman, former president George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign manager.

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