HISTORIC: Obama Announces Support for Marriage Equality

President Barack Obama has officially evolved.

BY Andrew Harmon

May 09 2012 3:01 PM ET

President Barack Obama has officially evolved.

Amid rampant Beltway speculation and growing calls for an unequivocal position on marriage from LGBT groups and the national media, President Obama said in a Wednesday interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts, "It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married." 

The president's decision, he explained, stemmed from his own experience with gay staff in committed relationships as well as the continued discrimination against gay service members, who can now serve openly in the military following repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” but are denied the same basic equal rights as their heterosexual counterparts.

“I’ve stood on the side of broader equality I hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient,” the president said. “But 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,” Obama said.

Obama's conclusion in favor of marriage equality also reflected a generational shift that cuts across party lines, he explained.

"When I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk with college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy or on foreign policy but are very clear that when it comes to same-sex equality, or sexual orientation, that they believe in equality," the president said. "They’re much more comfortable with it."

The groundbreaking comments mark the first time that a sitting president has publicly voiced support for same-sex marriage, and come just three days after Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview with NBC that he supports such rights for gay and lesbian couples. “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” Biden said.

Biden’s comments and the intense media speculation they unleashed perhaps left little room for Obama’s continued evolution on the matter, precipitating Wednesday’s interview with ABC that described by some as “hastily arranged.”

Though Wednesday's presidential interview may have no immediate impact on the actual state landscape of marriage rights, the presidential imprint on the freedom to marry is perhaps incalculable in its historic significance, and adds symbolic weight to the administration's 2011 decision to cease legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, the antigay 1996 law that denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages and bars couples from a multitude of rights and responsibilities as a result.

“It was time, and I’m glad he did it," Congressman Barney Frank said Wednesday of the president. “I almost forgot that he hadn’t formally said it. The big breakthrough was when he said that he wasn’t going to defend DOMA."

Several national polls show a clear trend for marriage equality support — a recent Gallup poll showed 50% of Americans favor same-sex marriage, for instance, with previous polls as high as 53% in support.

But it’s unclear how the president’s position will affect his reelection bid, particularly in critical swing states, including North Carolina, which passed the antigay Amendment One by an overwhelming margin Tuesday.

In a statement released shortly after the president’s remarks were aired, Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said, “Today, President Obama made history by boldly stating that gay and lesbian Americans should be fully and equally part of the fabric of American society and that our families deserve nothing less than the equal respect and recognition that comes through marriage. His presidency has shown that our nation can move beyond its shameful history of discrimination and injustice. In him, millions of young Americans have seen that their futures will not be limited by what makes them different.”

Chad Griffin, who will take Solmonese’s place at the LGBT organization next month, said that Obama’s marriage equality endorsement “will be celebrated by generations to come.”

But on the campaign trail earlier today, presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney drew sharp divisions between his position and that of the president, telling a local Fox News affiliate in an interview, “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. My view is the domestic partnership benefits, hospital visitation rights, and the like are appropriate, but that the others are not.”

Following the president's remarks, Romney weighed in further at an Oklahoma Republican Party event with Gov. Mary Fallin, reiterating his anti-marriage equality position.

"I know other people have differing views — this is a very tender and sensitive topic, as are many social issues. But I have the same view that I’ve had since, well, since running for office," Romney said.

The topic wasn't so tender at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February, where Romney quipped that his "severely conservative" record as governor of Massachuetts prevented the state "from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage.”

As an onslaught of press releases from public officials flew throughout the course of the afternoon, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus also drew contrasts between the GOP and Obama on Wednesday afternoon, asserting that the White House announcement was nothing more than cynical politics. "While President Obama has played politics on this issue, the Republican Party and our presumptive nominee Mitt Romney have been clear. We support maintaining marriage between one man and one woman and would oppose any attempts to change that."

On Monday, Education secretary Arne Duncan joined Biden in publicly supporting marriage equality. Another cabinet official, HUD secretary Shaun Donovan, voiced his personal support for same-sex marriage last fall, while other cabinet members have avoided comment on the subject.

Minutes before the ABC interview was to begin, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, when asked by MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell about the president’s position, said, “If he’s going to endorse [marriage equality], I respect him for having the guts to say what he believes.”

Obama’s confusing position on the issue, where he has opposed state initiatives to ban gay marriage yet evaded stating his own beliefs for some time, had drawn increasing fire from both sides of the aisle. Some Republicans have slammed the president for what they see as a cynical equivocation on the issue and sought to equate his position with that of Mitt Romney. That framing is patently false, Obama supporters charged back, given Romney supports a federal marriage amendment barring equality and would uphold DOMA.

Obama first explained his position to AmericaBlog’s Joe Sudbay in October 2010. Two months later he said in a White House news conference on the subject, “My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this. I have friends, I have people who work for me who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions. And they are extraordinary people. And this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about.”

Previously, the president said that he was in favor of civil unions, but not marriage, though in a 1996 questionnaire while running for state Senate in Illinois, Obama said he would favor legalization of same-sex marriages.

President Obama visits Los Angeles on a campaign swing Thursday, one that will include a mega-fund-raiser hosted by George Clooney that will be attended by national marriage equality supporters including director Rob Reiner, a board member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which organized the federal lawsuit against California’s Proposition 8.

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