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  • Sasha Issenberg

May 9, 2012: Barack Obama announces marriage reversal

ON THIS DAY IN 2012…

President Barack Obama announced his personal view was now that “same-sex couples should be able to get married," a turnabout of his previously held position on the subject.


Obama had sought the presidency in 2008 as a supporter of civil unions but not marriage rights for gays and lesbians. "For me as a Christian, it is a sacred union. God's in the mix,” he told Pastor Rick Warren that summer. In the White House, Obama’s stance was a source of continued friction with gay-rights activists, a topic that received outsized attention from the media. In December 2010, in response to a question at a press conference, Obama said his views on marriage were “constantly evolving.” Two months later, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder decided that the Justice Department would no longer stand by the Defense of Marriage Act against challenges to its constitutionality, and faced surprisingly little political resistance to the news.

That summer, Obama and a close circle of government and campaign advisers began to consider the wisdom of declaring a reversal on the issue before his reëlection. They settled on a plan to have the president make the announcement in the early summer of 2012, early enough in the campaign year that it would be unlikely to overshadow his message on issues believed to be more salient with persuadable voters. But that stratagem did not survive an appearance by Vice President Joe Biden on Meet the Press. Asked if his own views on marriage views had “evolved,” Biden responded that he was “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women.” White House officials initially insisted that Biden’s remark was not at odds with administration policy, a claim that did nothing to quell demands for Obama to weigh in himself.


That Wednesday morning, hours after North Carolina became the last state to ban same-sex marriage via ballot initiative, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer set a revised plan into motion. He invited ABC News anchor Robin Roberts to interview the president later that day. That afternoon, in the Cabinet Room, Obama again used the metaphor of “evolution” to explain as he reviewed earlier rationales he had offered for the merits of civil unions as a marriage of evolution.


“As I talk to friends and family and neighbors; when I think about members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in 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're not able to commit themselves in a marriage,” Obama said. “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 was careful to insist that, despite the understood momentousness of his remarks, he did not intend for it to have any direct effect on policy. “This is an issue that is gonna be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what's recognized as a marriage,” he told Roberts. He had long opposed the Defense of Marriage Act even while believing that same-sex couples should not be able to marry, he explained, because it “tried to federalize what is historically been state law.”


There was still one reversal left for Obama on the issue, and it would take place far from the glare of television lights. Less than three years later, Obama would send his solicitor general before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that his administration believed that all remaining state laws banning same-sex marriage should fall.


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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