WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s decision to endorse same-sex marriage staked out a stance that carries uncertain political risks but one he said was rooted in the biblical admonition “to treat others the way you would want to be treated.”
Obama’s endorsement Wednesday, a milestone for the gay rights movement, was the first from a sitting president and a potentially powerful tail wind for a cause still struggling for electoral approval. It comes as the country remains divided over whether same-sex marriages should have the same recognition and legal standing as traditional ones, and six months before an election expected to be so tight it may hinge on small slices of votes in a handful of key states.
He equivocated for more than a year, saying his position was “evolving.” More recently, he came under considerable pressure – from his somewhat deflated base and a powerful network of gay donors – to speak his mind before the November election. His announcement was hastened by a similar declaration from Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday, which prompted calls for Obama to speak out or risk falling behind the curve.
“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 told ABC News’ Robin Roberts in an interview hastily arranged by the White House to quiet the fallout from the Biden remarks.
Obama told the “Good Morning America” anchor that he arrived at the decision by talking to gay friends, staff members, his two daughters and his wife, who he said shared his support. His Christian faith and the golden rule factored in. “In the end, the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people,” Obama said.
Obama had cited religion in opposing same-sex marriages as he campaigned for president, but in December 2010 he declared his position was evolving. That position was widely viewed as a wink and a nod to supporters of gay rights, who believed the president was withholding a public declaration of support out of concerns about alienating some key voters.
Nationally, a slim majority of voters favors gay marriages, according to most polls – a majority that has been increasing because of shifting attitudes among young people and middle-class voters. Still, religious, black, Latino and older voters remain more likely to express opposition, and 38 states have adopted prohibitions of same-sex marriage, according the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some Democrats contend that the voters most strongly opposed are unlikely to vote for Obama anyway, adding gay marriage, like abortion, to the list of social issues dividing partisans.
But the president’s announcement is likely to hurt him in the South, where 1 in 3 swing voters strongly oppose gay marriage, a recent Pew Research Center poll found. Just this week, North Carolina, which Obama narrowly won in 2008, approved one of the strongest bans on same-sex unions in the country. The state increasingly appears out of reach for Obama this year.
More crucial to his re-election chances will be the effect in Virginia, where a recent survey showed him with a slight lead over Mitt Romney. Polls in the state show the electorate nearly evenly divided. There’s also a danger of turning off some religious voters, such as white Protestants in the Rust Belt or Catholic Latinos. On the other hand, young voters and strong supporters of gay marriage may be energized.
Obama’s decision is unleashing a wave of financial support from gay and lesbian donors and is likely to heighten demand for tickets to a June 6 LGBT fundraising gala in Los Angeles featuring the singer Pink.
“Within minutes, people were calling with their credit cards. They’re thrilled,” said Andrew Tobias, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and a top fundraising bundler for Obama. He said one donor pledged $10,000 and decided to fly with his partner from Los Angeles to attend an Obama fundraiser in New York on Monday.
The president’s campaign was quick to capitalize on his decision, sending an email to supporters asking for donations.
For months, the president’s advisers gave no indication that he planned to reveal a new stance before the November election, believing that Obama’s record on other gay rights issues would suffice to win over an increasingly powerful network of gay donors and other ardent supporters. Obama ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gay soldiers from serving openly and dropped the legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act.
But advisers say the president decided a few weeks ago that he had changed his mind and wanted to make an announcement before the Democratic National Convention in September.
Michelle Obama was a strong influence, administration officials said. She went out of her way to invite gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender couples to events she sponsored for military families.
Several gay staffers work in the West Wing, and at least one pair are in a committed relationship and raising children. The Obama daughters also have friends with same-sex parents, whom the first family has gotten to know.
“He was ready,” said a second senior administration official.