How Long Before Obama Supports Gay Marriage?

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).

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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.

Lately, though, gay rights advocates have been getting what they want. In a whiplash series of compromises before it adjourned in December of last year, Congress voted to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell. In February, the Department of Justice announced it would drop its legal defense of DOMA.

Obama was clearly pleased with New York's vote, and he seemed to indicate that he sees legalized gay marriage as the future. In the interim, his official political stance is one of states' rights. "That's how I think things should work," he said Wednesday of the New York vote. "Because each community is going to be different, and each state is going to be different."

Aside from national legalization of gay marriage, all that's left, on Obama's end, from the gay-rights perspective seems to be an open endorsement of gay marriage as his personal view. A related political question may or may not influence how he answers: Will America be ready to elect a president who holds that stance in 2012?

In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, Obama left the door open to changing his mind on gay marriage -- while laying out a general doctrine of humility and political flexibility:

I was reminded that it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights. I must admit that I may have been infected with society's prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God ... and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history.

It now appears that Obama may eventually be judged on the "wrong side of history," as he put it. More voices in mainstream commentary are now predicting that gay rights are the next civil-rights paradigm to shift, with opposition to gay marriage now akin to opposition to interracial marriage.

Gallup announced in late May that, for the first time in the history of its polling, a majority of respondents said they supported gay marriage, by a margin of 53 percent to 45 percent, after opposing it by almost the same margin last year. The longer trajectory, in chart form:

Gallup gay marriage.gif

That accompanies more polling that shows gay marriage as popular. Respondents to an April CNN poll supported it 51 percent to 47 percent. A March ABC/Washington Post poll showed gay marriage supported by a margin of 53 percent to 44 percent.

Is the president simply waiting for the country to be ready for a president who backs gay marriage, explicitly? Some people wonder.

Obama had checked a box on a 1996 questionnaire stating he supported legalizing same-sex marriages, though White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said last week that Obama hadn't filled out the form personally. This week, The New York Times reported that the White House is examining the political art of Obama announcing a change:

The White House would not comment on whether Mr. Obama was ready to endorse same-sex marriage. But one Democratic strategist close to the White House, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said some senior advisers "are looking at the tactics of how this might be done if the president chose to do it."

Which sure makes it sound like Obama will endorse gay marriage someday. The key question will be whether that happens before or after November 2012.