He supports states' rights for now, but the president seems to be inching his way toward supporting marriage equality outright
"I'm not going to make news on that today," President Obama said when asked if he personally supports gay marriage at Wednesday's press conference. But the president did lay out the current state of his "evolving" stance on the matter, praising New York state's recent vote to legalize it and highlighting his administration's opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal gay-marriage ban, in court.
With Obama slated to host a gay-pride reception at the White House Wednesday night, the question was bound to be asked. And it was, first by NBC's Chuck Todd, who wanted to know if Obama thinks marriage is a civil right. The president responded:
What we've also done is we've said that DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, is unconstitutional, and so we've said that we cannot defend the federal government poking its nose into what states are doing and ... tipping the scale against same-sex couples. What I've seen happen in the last several years, and what happened in New York last week, I think is a good thing, because what you saw was the people of New York having a debate, talking through these issues.
It was contentions, it was emotions, and they made a decision to recognize civil marriage, and that's how I think things should work, and so I think it is important for us to work through these issues, because each community is going to be different, and each state is going to be different.
In the meantime, we file briefs before the Supreme Court that say we think that any discrimination against gays, lesbians, transgenders is subject to higher scrutiny, and we don't think that DOMA's constitutional ...
I think what you're seeing is the profound recognition on the part of the American people that gay, lesbian, transgendered persons are our sisters ... our friends, our coworkers, and that they've gotta be treated like every other American, and I think that principle will win out. It's not going to be perfectly smooth ...
The president seems to envision total legal equality for gays, including marriage, as an endgame -- his key phrase being, "I think that principle," i.e., equality, "will win out." But he won't yet say he supports "gay marriage" (or "marriage equality," as same-sex marriage advocates now increasingly call the legalization of same-sex marriage).
In 2008, Obama told Pastor Rick Warren in a high-profile appearance on stage at the Saddleback Presidential Forum that "I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian -- for me -- for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God's in the mix." Obama campaigned against the idea of a constitutional amendment to define marriage, and for added benefits for same-sex partners.
It didn't seem like Obama could get elected if he supported gay marriage. A May 2008 Gallup poll showed a wide majority, 56 percent to 40 percent, opposing the legal recognition of same-sex marriages. A narrow majority, 49 percent to 48 percent, supported a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as heterosexual in that same poll. Though the idea of marriage had gained mainstream traction, the majority of the country didn't support it.
Gay-rights politics have been tricky for the president. Gay activists supported him in 2008, as he was far more supportive of their cause than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but they quickly grew frustrated with Obama once he took office. "Welcome to your White House," Obama told cheering LGBT activists at a pride reception in June 2009, but before the event gay-rights leaders grumbled, on and off the record, that Obama wasn't living up to his campaign image.
The administration made no immediate progress on repealing the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell rule, and Obama didn't seem to prioritize it, either. Activists complained that he could simply do away with it, but the president protested that it was up to Congress to end the policy. Meanwhile, Obama's Department of Justice defended the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. Gay-rights activists saw these as ongoing, senseless civil-rights violations that could easily be ended by a president who simply declined to. Underlying these complaints was another, a political one: that the gay-rights community was a downtrodden constituency, easily pandered to by Democrats and then ignored at critical moments, simply because they didn't command enough votes or money, and that they were again being pushed to the back of the line.