President Obama wasn't "bullshitting" anyone when he "evolved" to openly support full marriage equality in May 2012, the commander in chief told BuzzFeed News Tuesday.
Obama said his former adviser, David Axelrod, was "mixing up" the president's personal feelings and policy position on the issue in Axelrod's new book, advance copies of which were reviewed by major press outlets earlier this week. In the book, titled Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, Axelrod contends that in 2008, then-candidate Obama fully endorsed the freedom to marry, but hedged his policy position at the advice of advisers like Axelrod, who worried about how such open support would play in religious communities.
BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith asked Obama Tuesday about Axelrod's recollection that the president had said he wasn't very good at "bullshitting" about his full support for marriage equality, asking why Obama felt he had to scale back his support.
"Well, you know, I think David is mixing up my personal feelings with my position on the issue," Obama told Smith. "I always felt that same-sex couples should be able to enjoy the same rights, legally, as anybody else, and so it was frustrating to me not to, I think, be able to square that with what were a whole bunch of religious sensitivities out there.
"So my thinking at the time was that civil unions — which I always supported — was a sufficient way of squaring the circle," the president continued. "That, OK, we won’t call it 'marriage,' we’ll call it 'civil unions,' same-sex couples will have the same rights as anybody else, but the word 'marriage' with its religious connotations historically would be preserved for marriages between men and women.
"Where my evolution took place was not in my attitude toward same-sex couples, it was in understanding the pain and the sense of stigma that was being placed on same-sex couples who are friends of mine, where they’d say, 'You know what, if you’re not calling it marriage, it doesn’t feel like the same thing. Even if you gave me the same rights, the fact that I’m being treated differently or the love that we feel is somehow segmented off, that hurts.' It was because of those conversations that I ended up shifting positions, that civil unions, in fact, were not sufficient rather than marriage. But I think the notion that somehow I was always in favor of marriage per se isn’t quite accurate."
As Smith noted in a follow-up question, Obama had actually endorsed marriage equality as far back as 1996, when he ran for an Illinois State Senate seat from Chicago, his first political race. Responding to a questionnaire from Outlines, a Chicago LGBT newspaper, he wrote, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." He made a similar statement in a questionnaire for Impact, a now-defunct Illinois LGBT political action committee.
Outlines published a report using the information, and no one from the Obama campaign disputed it at the time. In later years, the president’s aides have said the questionnaire was filled out by a staff member, although Obama signed it. He went on to win the election, launching his political career.
Smith asked Obama about that questionnaire directly in Tuesday's interview.
"The old questionnaire, you know, is an example of struggling with what was a real issue at the time, which is how do you make sure that people’s rights are enjoyed and these religious sensitivities were taken into account?" replied Obama. "You know, these are the kinds of things you learn as you … move forward in public life: that sometimes you can’t split the difference. That sometimes you just have to be very clear that this is what’s right. And what I’m very proud of is to see how rapidly the country has shifted and maybe the small part that I’ve played, but certainly my Justice Department and others have played, in this administration in getting to where we need to be."