Former senior Obama adviser and current book-promoter David Axelrod has stunned the political world with the revelation, in his new tome Believer: My 40 Years In Politics, that Barack Obama supported gay marriage long before he completed his public “evolution” on the topic. From Time:
“I’m just not very good at bullshitting,” Obama told Axelrod, after an event where he stated his opposition to same-sex marriage, according to the book.
…“Opposition to gay marriage was particularly strong in the black church, and as he ran for higher office, he grudgingly accepted the counsel of more pragmatic folks like me, and modified his position to support civil unions rather than marriage, which he would term a ‘sacred union,’”
“…Yet if Obama’s views were “evolving” publicly, they were fully evolved behind closed doors. The president was champing at the bit to announce his support for the right of gay and lesbian couples to wed—and having watched him struggle with this issue for years, I was ready, too.”
As we all know now, the president eventually did come out in favor of legalizing gay marriage, but only after Vice President Joe Biden kind of let the horse out of the barn, and too long after his declaration that his views were “evolving” on the subject. In that historic ABC News interview, the president went a long way toward explaining himself, telling Robin Roberts, “I have always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally,” listing a series of his administration’s accomplishments.
He said he “hesitated” on gay marriage because he felt that civil unions would be sufficient, and because the word “marriage” invokes powerful traditions and beliefs for a lot of people, but concluded that “for me personally, it is important to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”
It was the culmination of a years-long “evolution” on the subject of gay marriage rights that began with an expression of support for full marriage rights on a 1996 candidate questionnaire, fell back to the more politically palatable “civil unions” in the 2000s, and ratcheted back up with a series of declarations and actions opposing efforts to ban same-sex marriage, but falling short of a full-throated declaration of support for marriage equality.
Along the way, politicians and media figures on the right tried to take cover behind the president with the lie that their positions were identical to his, but while Obama professed a personal belief in marriage as being between a man and a woman, he has never supported banning same sex marriage. It was a weird, as Axelrod puts it, “compromised” position in which he didn’t want to legalize gay marriage, but didn’t want anyone to ban it, and kinda wanted to leave it up to the states (sound familiar?).
As someone who has covered this president for a very long time, and has pressed the administration on this issue, my read has always been that this cake was baked the day Obama told Jake Tapper his views were “evolving,” and probably before that. The president’s arc on gay marriage, in my view, has always been a series of noble lies. The 1996 Obama who filled out a candidate questionnaire supporting gay marriage knew that gay people were full human beings, entitled to the same right to marry as others, and so did all of the Obamas to follow.
But no one would disagree that a committed advocate for gay marriage can do more good as president than as overqualified law professor, and if he hadn’t adapted his position in favor of civil unions (which weren’t really on the table in 1996), we would all be watching Professor Barry rail against President McCain as an MSNBC panelist. Obama told the noble lie that he believed marriage was between a man and a woman so that he could move closer to a time when it wouldn’t matter what he, or anyone else, believed about someone else’s marriage.
That’s not to say Obama never felt a conflict between his conviction that gay people deserve equal rights and his religious convictions, but that conflict appears to have been resolved long ago with the obvious conclusion that personal views shouldn’t trump someone else’s civil rights.
Having already been elected president, and with a raft of impressive achievements for LGBT rights under his belt, Obama had a difficult choice to make about expressing support for marriage equality. Early in his first term, states began to fall like slow-mo dominoes into the gay marriage column, and by the time he said he was evolving , in late 2010, gay marriage was doing fine without him, and had probably been helped by not having the Obama name attracting opposition to it.
Making that final symbolic leap in 2010 could have meant everything to millions of LGBT people who suffer second-class treatment every day, and who really couldn’t wait another day. Or, he could wait to make the jump at a time designed for maximum political impact, maximum political gain, while also amplifying whatever positive effect his support would have. I his plan was to make the announcement at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, which would have been a powerful push for the movement.
Instead, being forced out of the closet by Joe Biden and Arne Duncan resulted in the worst of both worlds: an evolution that took to long, even then appeared to have been completed only under tremendous pressure. The president, ever the poker player, held his aces a little too long in this case. Had he played them earlier, though, he might well have hobbled marriage equality’s momentum, and his own chances to do things like overturn Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, or even become president.