Carefully Worded

05.09.12

Obama’s Same-Sex Two-Step: Strictly Personal Embrace of Gay Marriage?

The president endorsed gay marriage on Wednesday—but took pains to stress his position as a personal one. That means official action on the statement won’t necessarily follow, says Harry Siegel.

As President Obama sought to bring his lengthy “evolution” position on the issue on gay marriage to an end Wednesday in an interview with ABC, the network’s chyron proclaimed: Obama Officially Affirms Gay Marriage Support. But the president’s remarks were carefully couched as anything but official.

While same-sex marriage advocates were mostly united in their praise of “a historic turning point,” Obama took care to present his position as a personal one—and not one that would necessarily trigger any official action in his roles as president and head of the Democratic Party.

“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 Robin Roberts (emphases mine).

“The president stressed that this is a personal position, and that he still supports the concept of states’ [sic] deciding the issue on their own,” reported ABC, which has aired excerpts of the interview but has yet to release it in full.

Thirty states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, while six states and Washington, D.C., legally recognize them. Obama’s interview came a day after North Carolinians overwhelmingly passed a state constitutional amendment barring not just same-sex marriages but civil unions.

It remains unclear what, if anything, Obama’s personal embrace of same-sex marriage will mean in his roles as president, and head of the Democratic Party. While prominent Democrats have called for the national party to add a plank in support of gay marriage to its platform at the convention in Charlotte in September, senior administration officials declined to tell the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein whether Obama would now push for a gay-marriage plan at the convention. The officials also said the president stood by his position that he would not sign an executive order banning discrimination against federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation.

“[B]y endorsing a ‘states’ rights’ approach to same-sex marriage, Obama essentially preserves the current status quo in which a handful of states recognize same-sex marriage and many states have constitutional bans against them,” wrote Nation editor Richard Kim. “That is not marriage equality, and does not even reach the standard Obama previously embraced of equal rights and recognitions.”

It remains unclear what, if anything, Obama’s personal embrace of same-sex marriage will mean in his roles as president, and head of the Democratic Party.

The one time Obama offered a categorical answer on what may supporters see as a civil rights question was in 1996, when as a candidate for the Illinois state Senate he wrote in response to a survey from a gay paper: “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

That shorter response, far more sweeping and categorical than what he said Wednesday, was repudiated last year by White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, who said that despite Obama’s signature, “the answers were actually filled out by someone else” and didn’t reflect Obama’s view at the time.