For the first time ever, a president of the United States supports gay marriage. In an interview today with ABC News’ Robin Roberts, President Obama announced that he now supports same-sex marriage. or the last several years, Obama had maintained the position that he only supported civil unions and not same-sex marriages but that his thoughts on the issue were “constantly evolving.” The president’s decision to announce his change of heart now, just six months before the election and immediately after North Carolina’s approval of an amendment banning same-sex marriage, comes as a surprise to analysts who believed he would avoid taking a position on the hot-button issue until after November. ABC released Obama’s official statement on same-sex marriage on Wednesday after the interview. I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, 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. The ABC report also notes that Obama’s statement was nothing more than a personal opinion and that he still maintains that states should be allowed to make their own decisions on the issue. Still, the timing of the statement in relation to Amendment One’s passage in North Carolina could suggest that the president’s statement is his way of directly opposing the bill which his campaign said left him “disappointed.”
Why the sudden change of heart? North Carolina was not the first state to pass a bill banning same-sex marriage; 28 other states limit marriage to heterosexual unions. Moreover, North Carolina law already defined marriage as being between a man and woman. But the law has already created substantial backlash. Gay Marriage USA has begun collecting a petition of more than 20,000 signatures calling for the Democratic National Convention to be moved from Charlotte “to a state that upholds values of equality and liberty, and which treats all citizens equally.” The president has also been facing pressure from within the Democratic Party to move his position on the issue of same-sex marriage. This week, Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan both publicly announced that they supported same-sex marriage. Biden made his statement on Monday’s “Meet the Press”: I am vice president of the United States of America. 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. Writing in the Nation Monday, Richard Kim argues that Obama’s “evolving” position on gay marriage has been politics all along--in 1996, he stated that he was in full support of its legalization. Since then, Kim notes: In striking contrast to other members of his generation who have moved to support same-sex marriage — and in ways that are at odds with his other views on civil rights, family and citizenship — Obama has “evolved” rightward. There’s no other way to explain this shift except in the most obvious terms — as a matter of sheer political calculation. The further up the political food chain Obama went, the more he concluded that being adamantly pro-gay wasn’t to his electoral benefit. In other words, his current view isn’t a product of evolution so much as it is of intelligent design. One theory of the abrupt halt of the administration’s equivocation on the issue was that an unscripted remark on Biden’s part had forced the president’s hand. According to the Chicago Sun Times, “by going so far — and so passionately — Biden elevated the gay marriage debate, propelled it into the conversation — not one the Obama re-election team had been looking for at this time.” The other, of course, is that there’s a policy gain to the reversal. Previous speculation had been that Obama would not announce a revised stance on same-sex marriage until after the November election out of a fear of losing key constituents in swing states like Virginia and North Carolina. Was this simply Obama’s way of saving face as members of his party moved on the issue? Or has the Obama campaign decided that the votes gained among young people and LGBT constituents will make up for the lost religious moderate votes? Likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney maintained his strong position against same-sex marriage in a statement on Monday. My view is that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. That’s the position I’ve had for some time, and I don’t intend to make any adjustments at this point. … Or ever, by the way. At the same time, Republican lawyer Ted Olson of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the sponsor of the constitutional challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, celebrated Obama’s remarks. Today is a proud day for all Americans. The bedrock American principles of freedom and human dignity are central to the political and legal convictions of Republicans, Democrats, liberals, and conservatives alike. President Obama’s words remind us that marriage and equality are universal values that unite us all. They remind us that we are all—as a People and a Nation—striving to form a more perfect Union. A Gallup poll this week showed that 50 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, down from 53 percent in 2011. Clearly the issue will be divisive in the upcoming election, yet the expectation is that it will take a backseat to the more pressing issue of the economy. Obama’s interview with Roberts is scheduled to air on Thursday’s episode of Good Morning America.
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Diana Rosen is a winter/spring 2012 In These Times editorial intern.
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