Interview Bombshell

05.10.12

How President Obama, in Six Days, Decided to Come Out for Gay Marriage

Vice President Biden torpedoed the White House plan to endorse gay marriage before the Democratic convention. Howard Kurtz on how political and media pressure forced the president’s hand.

It was more than a year ago, administration and campaign officials say, that President Obama decided to abandon his posture of sympathetic neutrality and personally embrace same-sex marriage. The only question was when.

Wednesday unexpectedly became the day. “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” the president said in an interview with ABC News.

The declaration was not supposed to come this week. Instead, the White House had planned to dramatically unveil the shift shortly before the Democratic convention. But Obama had been agitated by Vice President Joe Biden’s own endorsement of gay marriage on Sunday, which knocked the White House off what was supposed to be its message this week—student loans and economic issues.

The president expressed his frustration to West Wing officials—some of whom questioned whether Biden had wandered off script or was trying to foster a change in policy—but Obama didn’t take up the issue with his No. 2. Asked about Biden's role in prodding him, Obama acknowledged to ABC "that I would have preferred to do it in my own time, on my own terms."

At first, the administration beat a strategic retreat, trying to walk back Biden’s comments and defuse the controversy. But that approach quickly faltered in the face of growing pressure and media scrutiny.

As reporters badgered his press secretary on how Obama could say he was still “evolving” on the hot-button issue while his vice president had taken a stand, the president decided the moment had arrived.

“If you’re looking to strike while the iron is hot, you could say the iron had been warmed up,” says a Democrat with close ties to the White House.

Obama concluded by midday Tuesday that a friendly interview would be a better venue for his announcement than a potentially raucous news conference. The White House reached out directly on Tuesday to Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts, says a source familiar with the situation, indicating that the president was available and wanted to clarify his position on same-sex marriage. The assumption among the ABC brass is that the president wanted an African-American anchor who is known for her non-confrontational style.

A senior White House official notified ABC of the president’s interest and said no topic was off-limits—a subtle suggestion that he would address the marriage controversy.

“If you’re looking to strike while the iron is hot, you could say the iron had been warmed up.”

White House staffers were warned not to leak anything before the session with Roberts, but there were winks and nudges. “You guys will be good,” one top executive at a prominent advocacy group was told. “Get ready,” said a lunchtime email to The Daily Beast.

At the Wednesday afternoon taping, Obama said what would have been politically unthinkable even four years ago—that he had “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.” With those comments, he roiled the 2012 presidential campaign—and forever changed the way gay marriage will be perceived and debated.

Video screenshot

President Obama announces his support for gay marriage

On the surface, it might appear that Obama has handed the GOP a powerful wedge issue. But as Mitt Romney’s muted reaction made clear, Republicans may not be as anxious to exploit the issue as they were during the Bush administration, in part because of growing public support for what proponents call marriage equality.

“I have the same view on marriage that I had when I was governor," Romney told reporters. “I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.” And his tone was anything but inflammatory: “This is a very tender and sensitive topic, as are many social issues.” The unofficial Republican nominee supports a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage but almost never talks about it.

Richard Grenell, who abruptly resigned as Romney’s foreign policy adviser after some conservatives complained about his homosexuality, found a way to split the difference. While “pleased” with Obama’s decision, Grenell says, he “is once again more concerned with his own political calculations than with actual equal rights. The president could have evolved when the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate or even yesterday before the swing state of North Carolina voted.”

Indeed, when 61 percent of North Carolina voters approved a referendum banning gay marriage on Tuesday—in the state where Obama will be renominated—it underscored the tricky terrain for supporters and opponents alike. Six states have legalized same-sex marriage, but it has never been approved when put to a public vote. Polls show that Americans are roughly divided on the matter.

Even the president’s inner circle is uncertain of the fallout. “It’s nice to further excite our base in the gay community,” says the Democrat familiar with White House thinking, “but we don’t want to do that at the expense of African-Americans, who have moral concerns. It’s nice to excite young voters, but we don’t want to close the door on an opening that does exist with Latino evangelicals. On the other hand, the American people appreciate the president taking a stand and speaking clearly. Nobody, not even Obama, knows how this will play out.”

Whatever the reservations, the Obama campaign wasted no time in sending voters a mass email in the president’s name Wednesday night that linked to the ABC interview. “Today, I was asked a direct question and gave a direct answer: I believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry,” it said.

The White House emphasized Obama’s reasoning in talking points distributed to allies and obtained by the website Buzzfeed: “It’s no secret the president has gone through some soul-searching on this issue. He’s talked to his wife about it, like so many couples do. He’s heard from folks—gay friends in long-term, loving relationships; brave young servicemen and women he got to know through the fight to end Don’t, Ask Don’t Tell; staff members; folks who sent compelling letters about their lives. It’s no doubt they’ve shaped his view on this issue,” the memo said.

The official guidance points out that “this isn’t a federal issue.” And perhaps anticipating a backlash from Christian leaders, the talking points stress that the debate involves “civil marriage” and “we must be respectful of religious liberty, that churches and other faith institutions are still going to be able to make determinations” about marriage.

Barney Frank, the most prominent gay member of Congress, tells The Daily Beast: “I don’t think any new votes are changed here. If you’re someone whose vote is strongly influenced by same-sex marriage, and if you’re anti, you’re not going to be voting for Obama. I don’t think this changes a single vote.”

The Massachusetts Democrat, who was closeted when first elected in 1980, says Obama signaled his stance when his Justice Department refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court early last year. Administration officials confirm that this was when Obama decided he would eventually have to come out of the policy closet.

“In the 40 years I’ve been working on gay rights,” says Frank, “if you asked me at any point what it would be like three years down the road, I would have been too pessimistic. We now have enough experience about who we are that the gap between the prejudice and who we are is closing. Young people think this is all ridiculous. People often believe one thing when they’re 25 and another when they’re 50, but as people get older, on this issue they don’t change—so it’s been moving very rapidly.”

But some conservatives used strong language in assailing Obama’s comments.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, says the president’s announcement “finally brings his words in sync with his actions. From opposing state marriage amendments to refusing to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act to giving taxpayer-funded marriage benefits to same-sex couples, the president has undermined the spirit if not the letter of the law.”

Bryan Fischer of the American Families Association was more blunt: “Romney for natural marriage, Obama for unnatural marriage. For social conservatives, choice is now quite clear.”

John Feehery, a former top Republican House official, says the president has bought himself political trouble: “This will not play well with church-going ethnics, Catholics in particular, and perhaps some church-going black voters who have been very active on this. There must be a reason he took so long to change his position on this, and my guess is it will cost him with some swing voters in Ohio, Wisconsin, and other rust belt states.”

Former Hillary Clinton adviser Doug Schoen, by contrast, says the move “helps Obama with the Democratic base—it was just getting uncomfortable for Obama not to be pro-gay marriage.” But it could damage the president’s chances among swing voters, he says: “You go to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, you’re going to find a lot of people who are traditional Democrats are going to have problems with this.”

The issue has a way of cutting across partisan lines, as was evident when Republican stalwart and Bush-era solicitor general Ted Olson helped lead the legal fight for gay marriage in California. “This seems to be one of the last major civil rights battles of our country,” Olson told The Beast a day before the president’s announcement. “And for people in our country to come out in numbers like this and say, ‘Well, we don’t want the persons next door—who are decent, God-fearing, taxpaying, obeying-the-law citizens who simply want to have happiness like the rest of us’—to say, ‘No, I have that right and you can’t have it,’ that just seems mean to me.”

Michael Guest, the first openly gay ambassador—appointed by George W. Bush as envoy to Romania—says this about Obama: “I and so many others are very happy the evolution ended in the interest of equality and fairness for all Americans.” Guest resigned to protest the lack of spousal benefits for his partner.

The unfolding of the administration’s switch over a six-day span was a case study in how sustained media attention can drive a government decision.

Biden taped his Meet the Press interview on Friday, telling David Gregory he was “absolutely comfortable” with men marrying men and women marrying women. Afterward, say administration and campaign sources, the vice president’s staff asked that the news not be released in any way until it aired on Sunday, and NBC executives agreed—allowing the White House time to craft a response.

“What VP said—that all married couples should have exactly the same legal rights—is precisely POTUS’s position,” campaign strategist David Axelrod tweeted to his 86,000 followers, using an acronym for President of the United States.

The following morning, however, Education Secretary Arne Duncan was asked on MSNBC’s Morning Joe whether he approved of gay marriage, and said he did. It was now clear to White House officials that every Cabinet officer would be asked such questions until the president addressed the controversy. On a conference call with reporters that morning, Axelrod criticized Romney for opposing same-sex marriage, even while maintaining that Obama’s position remained unchanged.

Reporters hammered press secretary Jay Carney at that afternoon’s briefing, with one shouting out: “You’re trying to have it both ways before an election!” Carney appeared flustered and struggled through the rest of the briefing. Reporters even laughed several times at his verbal gymnastics.

In the end, White House officials concluded that the unrelenting media pressure had forced their hand.

From the moment that the president sat down with ABC’s Robin Roberts, White House and campaign officials were given clear directions not to answer their phones until ABC released excerpts of the interview. Those going near the Oval Office, within earshot of where Obama was dropping his bombshell, had to surrender their BlackBerry devices and mobile phones.

White House aide Valerie Jarrett, who oversees lesbian, gay, and transgender issues, refrained from making advance calls. She stood behind the cameras in the room during the interview, then scurried about 20 steps to her West Wing office to make a few calls.

“The president is going to announce that same-sex marriage should be legal,” she told one group. As Jarrett continued, she hedged, saying Obama wasn’t endorsing any specific policy and still believes the question to be a matter for the states.

Other White House aides started making calls to top Democratic lawmakers. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, sitting in her Capitol office, was given about 20 minutes’ notice that the news was going to break. A senior aide ran to get her and tuned a television set to ABC.

“Oh wow, isn’t it great?” Pelosi said as she looked around at her staff.

This story is based on reporting by Daniel Stone, Eleanor Clift, John Avlon, Michelle Cottle, Ben Jacobs, Andrew Romano, Harry Siegel, Jesse Wegman and Jacob Bernstein.