Liberal bloggers were seated around a big table in the Roosevelt Room, peppering President Obama with policy questions. Suddenly, one of them turned to Obama and, struggling to overcome his emotions, made a very personal appeal.
“You can’t be equal in this country if the very core of who you are as a person and the love — the person you love is not — if that relationship isn’t the same as everybody else’s,” said Joe Sudbay, a gay writer for Americablog who said his community was “desperate” to know more about Obama’s stance on marriage rights.
“While I’m not prepared to reverse myself here, sitting in the Roosevelt Room at 3:30 in the afternoon,” Obama said, according to a transcript Sudbay posted on his blog after the October 2010 encounter, “I think it’s fair to say that it’s something that I think a lot about. That’s probably the best you’ll do out of me today.”
It took a year and a half, but Obama gave Sudbay the answer he was looking for, affirming his support for full marriage rights in a Wednesday television interview. The president’s appearance had been arranged after Vice President Biden said on Sunday that he supported same-sex marriage, setting off a frenzy of speculation about Obama’s views.
The Biden comments clearly disrupted Obama’s plans, so much so that the vice president apologized to him in the Oval Office on Wednesday morning, according to White House officials — a rare public admission of a vice president overstepping his bounds. Obama said he understood, that Biden had spoken from the heart, according to the officials.
The political benefits from the timing of Obama’s reversal were clear — he needed to alter a story line that was painting him as indecisive and calculating. And the announcement has spurred gay donors to give even more to Obama’s reelection campaign.
But the conversion also followed years of private and public pressure on Obama, sometimes involving uncomfortable exchanges in which people spoke passionately for gay rights and the president responded by invoking the civil rights movement and rarely ceding ground.
Obama often described his process as an “evolution,” telling interviewers and advocates that he was “wrestling” or “struggling” with the question of marriage. He told ABC’s Robin Roberts that his thinking changed in part based on conversations with gay staffers, friends and soldiers, as well as dinner-table chats with his family.
Some inconsistencies remain in Obama’s stance. Though he thinks gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, he still says he views it as a states’ rights issue at a time when many states are moving to tighten prohibitions on same-sex unions.
And the timeline that he and his aides have described remains muddled. Administration officials said Obama made his decision earlier this year and was looking for a good way to announce it. But the president suggested in his interview that he made up his mind much earlier, after the state of New York legalized same-sex marriage in the summer of 2011.
“That’s part of the — the evolution that I went through,” he told Roberts. “I asked myself — right after that New York vote took place, if I had been a state senator, which I was for a time — how would I have voted? And I had to admit to myself, ‘You know what? I think that — I would have voted yes.’ ”
Start of an evolution
Obama’s tangled history with same-sex marriage began in 1996, when he was running for a state Senate seat representing the liberal south side of Chicago.
That was when he filled out a questionnaire for a local gay newspaper, then called Outlines, in which he appeared to declare his no-qualms support for legalized marriage rights.
“I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages,” Obama stated on the signed form, a copy of which was posted on the paper’s Web site in 2009.
By 1998, he was already backing off that stance, according to Tracy Baim, publisher of the Windy City Media Group, which bought the newspaper that queried Obama on the issue during his state Senate campaigns.
For his second campaign, Obama “said he’d have to look into it,” Baim recalled.
In 2004, as he ran for the U.S. Senate, Obama embraced civil unions and full rights for gays and lesbians — but abandoned the word “marriage.”
Baim, who interviewed Obama that year and published a book in 2010 titled “Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage,” said the candidate’s new rhetoric on the issue rattled some of his gay supporters.
Baim’s book describes an “emergency meeting” convened by Obama with his advisory council of gays and lesbians to reassure them after he told a local radio host that he opposed marriage because of religious concerns. Baim writes that he told the group he was trying to “achieve the achievable,” referring to civil unions.