WASHINGTON -- It can now, apparently, be told: During his run for the presidency and his first years in the White House, President Barack Obama deceived the American public about his position on same-sex marriage.
The revelation, underwhelming as it may be to those who followed the debate closely, came in a passage from the president's longtime aide and adviser David Axelrod in his new book, Believer: My Forty Years In Politics. Axelrod admits that Obama personally supported the legalization of marriage equality for same-sex couples but claimed he didn't for political reasons.
Gay marriage was a particularly nagging issue. For as long as we had been working together, Obama had felt a tug between his personal views and the politics of gay marriage…. [H]e 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." Having prided himself on forthrightness, though, Obama never felt comfortable with his compromise and, no doubt, compromised position. He routinely stumbled over the question when it came up in debates or interviews. "I'm just not very good at bullshitting," he said with a sigh after one such awkward exchange.
It had long been assumed that Obama supported gay marriage and hid it for the sake of political expedience. After all, he had signed a questionnaire in 1996 while running for the state senate in Illinois saying he was a proponent. Would it really be possible that he regressed while the rest of the country evolved?
Of course not. And yet, there is something striking about Axelrod's passage, if only because it puts an end to the lengthy series of misdirection, spin and even lies that the administration told for years to avoid revealing Obama's true belief on the matter. Dating back to his Senate run in 2004, Obama and his aides repeatedly insisted that he wasn't yet fully comfortable with marriage for gay couples as a right, even though he clearly was. As the New York Times' Mike Barbaro put it:
Not so flattering to hear that first black president opposed gay marriage rights just to win, is it? http://t.co/6mKMvKun8O
— Michael Barbaro (@mikiebarb) February 10, 2015
Obama finally publicly stated he supported same-sex marriage in May 2012.
Here are 16 instances in which Obama or his team basically lied about his position:
- OBAMA: "Undecided." [Answer to a questionnaire that asked, "Do you favor legalizing same-sex marriage?", 1998]
- OBAMA: "I am a fierce supporter of domestic-partnership and civil-union laws. I am not a supporter of gay marriage as it has been thrown about, primarily just as a strategic issue. I think that marriage, in the minds of a lot of voters, has a religious connotation." [Windy City Times, Feb. 4, 2004]
- OBAMA: "I’m a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman." [WBBM-AM, Sept. 25, 2004]
- OBAMA: "I believe that American society can choose to carve out a special place for the union of a man and a woman as the unit of child rearing most common to every culture." [Audacity of Hope, 2006]
- OBAMA: "You know, I’m not in favor of gay marriage, but I’m in favor of a very strong civil union." [MSNBC's "Hardball," April 2, 2008]
- OBAMA: "I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian -- for me -- for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God's in the mix." [Saddleback Presidential Forum, April 17, 2008]
- OBAMA: "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage." [MTV, Nov. 1, 2008]
- ROBERT GIBBS [White House briefing, May 12, 2009]:
Q: Okay. And the second question on a completely different topic -- the President opposes same-sex marriage, but he supports giving same-sex couples the same rights as married people.
GIBBS: And benefits.
Q: Same rights and benefits. What's your response to critics of his policy who say this is exactly separate but equal?
GIBBS: Well, I would point you to the any number of times that he was asked this during the campaign and addressed it.
Q: I don't think he was ever asked is this separate but equal.
GIBBS: No. In fact, it was asked on multiple occasions, and I can pull you something on that. It's the President's belief -- he strongly supports civil unions, and supports ensuring that they have access to the rights and benefits, such as hospital visitation and things like that, that are enjoyed by others.
- DAVID AXELROD: "The president does oppose same-sex marriage, but he supports equality for gay and lesbian couples, and benefits and other issues, and that has been effectuated in federal agencies under his control" [MSNBC, Aug. 5, 2010]
- OBAMA: "I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage. ... I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine. And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships." [Blogger meeting, October 2010]
- OBAMA: "At this point, what I said is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have and I think that's the right thing to do. But I recognize that from their perspective that is not enough." [Press conference, Dec. 22, 2010]
- ROBERT GIBBS [White House briefing, Jan. 31, 2011]:
Q: Robert, I want to follow up on the issue of marriage and the President’s 1996 statement. I’ll read it again: “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” Why has the President abandoned this position?
GIBBS: I can simply -- I was not with the President in 1996. I was younger and thinner back then -- same shoe size. I would simply say that I think that throughout the campaign of 2004 and the campaign of 2008, he’s made his position clear on that.
Q: Was there a political motivation for the President to drop support for same-sex marriage as he pursued to higher office?
GIBBS: Again, I’d refer you to my previous answer.
- JAY CARNEY: "He’s grappling with the issue, but he -- again, I want to make the distinction between his personal views, which he has discussed, and the legal issue, the legal decision that was made today." [White House briefing, Feb. 23, 2011]
- WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: "Although the President believes that this is an issue best addressed by the states, he also firmly believes that committed gay and lesbian couples should receive equal protection under the law." [HuffPost, June 21, 2011]
- DAN PFEIFFER: "The president has never favored same-sex marriage. He is against it. The country is evolving on this, and he is evolving on it." [Netroots Nation, June 27, 2011]
- JAY CARNEY: "He has said quite clearly, as he did in the DOMA decision and as he did on Thursday night, that he believes that it’s for the states to decide." [White House briefing, June 27, 2011]
Here is the full excerpt from Axelrod's book (pp. 446-447):
"Gay marriage was a particularly nagging issue. For as long as we had been working together, Obama had felt a tug between his personal views and the politics of gay marriage. As a candidate for the state senate in 1996 from liberal Hyde Park, he signed a questionnaire promising his support for legalization. I had no doubt that this was his heartfelt belief. "I just don't feel my marriage is somehow threatened by the gay couple next door," he told me. Yet he also knew his view was way out in front of the public's. 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." Having prided himself on forthrightness, though, Obama never felt comfortable with his compromise and, no doubt, compromised position. He routinely stumbled over the question when it came up in debates or interviews. "I'm just not very good at bullshitting," he said with a sigh after one such awkward exchange.
By 2010 he had told reporters that his position was "evolving," and in 2011 the administration announced that it would no longer fight in court to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act, a controversial Clinton-era law absolving federal and state governments of their obligation to recognize gay marriages sanctioned in states where they were legal. 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. Jim Messina, the campaign manager, was nervous about the impact of such a step. "We've looked at this and it could cost you a couple of battleground states; North Carolina, for one," he said. By year's end, however, Obama was no longer interested in analysis. "I just want you guys to know that if a smart reporter asks me how I would vote on this if I were still in the state legislature, I'm going to tell the truth. I would vote yes."
UPDATE: 2 p.m. -- White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked on Tuesday about Obama withholding his support for same-sex marriage out of political expediency. He didn't deny Axelrod's account.
"What I can tell you is I have not had an opportunity to read all 520 pages of Mr. Axelrod’s book," Earnest said at the daily briefing. "The first-hand account that he provides in the context of the book is not one that I would disagree with or quibble with. He obviously is sharing his views as he remembers them and sometimes his perspective is informed by his up-close, front-row seat to history."
But when pressed specifically why Obama and his advisers had acted so cynically, Earnest sidestepped the question.
"Frankly, I don’t think I have a whole lot more to contribute to that," he said at one point.
"I think the president’s record on these issues speaks to this even better than I possibly could," he said at another.
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