This morning, word spread that the White House had very suddenly arranged an interview with Good Morning America's Robin Roberts for 1:30 p.m. No subject was off the table, meaning that, presumably, Obama would be asked about gay marriage, a topic that has seen a resurgence of interest since Joe Biden's quasi-endorsement on Sunday. The rumors started swirling that Obama had finally decided to endorse marriage equality. Gay-rights groups were optimistic. Press Secretary Jay Carney canceled his daily press briefing. The White House did nothing to tamp down expectations. By early afternoon, pretty much everyone assumed that Obama called the interview in order to make news — big, gay news. And, he did.
President Obama began referring to his slowly changing attitude toward gay marriage as an "evolution" back in October of 2010, but everyone has always known that's not really true. Obama, after all, had supported marriage equality as far back as 1996, only to abandon that extremely progressive position for a more politically expedient backing of civil unions by the time he ran for senate in 2004. He has consistently opposed the Defense of Marriage Act and every effort to ban gay marriages on both the state and federal level. Whether or not Obama was ready to announce it publicly, there wasn't a single person alive who actually believed that Obama didn't privately support marriage equality. So when Obama finally did endorse same-sex nuptials today — on a personal level, not as a national standard that the country should adhere to — he didn't complete a long, soul-searching evolution. He came out of the closet.
Obviously, Obama's announcement is a historic moment for the gay-rights movement and the country. And Obama's endorsement will hardly end with today's interview. For the duration of the presidential campaign, in sit-down interviews and town hall Q&As, Obama will have to explain the thinking behind his supposed conversion. Whether he wants to or not, he'll become the marriage equality movement's de facto spokesman.
But we also can't shake the feeling that this milestone didn't turn out to be as feel-good as it could have. Obama didn't back gay marriage purely out of principle, to set an example for the nation and the world. Instead, he waited for years until it gained wider acceptance, then announced his support when, thanks to his filter-challenged vice-president, the contradictions of his phony stance became too glaring and distracting to ignore any longer.
Update: Some reactions from fellow members of the marriage equality club:
Today, President Obama affirmed that the way forward is always found through greater respect for the equal rights of all #MD4ME— Martin O'Malley (@GovernorOMalley) May 9, 2012
Others weren't as impressed, like the Log Cabin Republicans:
"That the president has chosen today, when LGBT Americans are mourning the passage of Amendment One, to finally speak up for marriage equality is offensive and callous. Log Cabin Republicans appreciate that President Obama has finally come in line with leaders like Vice President Dick Cheney on this issue, but LGBT Americans are right to be angry that this calculated announcement comes too late to be of any use to the people of North Carolina, or any of the other states that have addressed this issue on his watch. This administration has manipulated LGBT families for political gain as much as anybody, and after his campaign’s ridiculous contortions to deny support for marriage equality this week he does not deserve praise for an announcement that comes a day late and a dollar short."
And, of course, there's Fox Nation's always level-headed analysis:
Update II: Some pundit reactions:
Adam Serwer/Mother Jones:
[T]he position he articulated today accepts the legitimacy of states like North Carolina subjecting the rights of gays and lesbians to a popular vote. In other words, Obama has left room for more evolution.
I am aware that there are various slice-and-dice cynical assessments one could make of the president's comments today .... But the fact remains that five minutes before his announcement, no one could be sure that he would take the step of saying that his personal views had changed. He did -- and it was important, brave, potentially risky, and right. That should be noted. It's a significant day.
I know what the polls show, and I know he was pushed into it, but I still credit the president with doing the right thing. So much of this process reminds me of Lincoln weighing emancipation, even as he knew, in his heart, that slavery was a sin.
At the risk of resorting to hyperbole, this is a political earthquake that shakes the landscape by putting a divisive culture-war issue front and center.
I’m very surprised that Obama did this — both because of the politics but also because of who President Obama is. He’s not someone who gets dramatically out in front of issues. Obviously, with the state of national polling, it’s not clearly the case that this is ‘dramatically out in front’. Still, I’m surprised.
You could look at this and think that the campaign's roll-out -- it started on Saturday! -- was undone by Joe Biden's loose talk. An alternate theory: The old, phony Obama position, useful as long as gay marriage was unpopular, had stopped being useful. Every interest group that took the anti side was lined up against Obama anyway, for sound reasons -- court appointments, the defense of DOMA. Polling on gay marriage had moved, narrowly, into the positive zone. The negatives of a flip-flop* were vanishing. And so the ruse came to an end.
If Republicans try to make a big deal about this, the President's advisers believe it will distract from the economy fight and hurt the GOP with younger voters. As David Axelrod made clear the other day, the Obamans will fight back on this issue as needed. Romney now has more questions to answer than the President does on these matters, such as about same-sex benefits. There will be micro-targeting to culturally conservative voters in swing states to be sure, but don't expect this decision to become a major campaign issue.
I have to start asking whether anyone seriously believes O would have stopped feigning opposition if it was still a clear political winner for him to keep it up. His “courage” here, as in all things, is about his own reelection chances. If there’s anything for gay rights supporters to celebrate today, it’s the fact that popular opinion has shifted enough that even an opportunist as transparent as The One thinks it’s safe enough to take this position before a national election
[W]hile some commenters have floated the idea that this could hurt Obama with African American voters, there are reasons for skepticism. Black opposition to gay marriage is statistically indistinguishable from support among the broader population, and there’s no evidence that same-sex marriage is a particularly salient issue for black voters.
As we wrote earlier this week, while a majority of people in the country now favor gay marriage it’s far from the sort of overwhelming majority that would prompt Obama to change his position without, of course, the (unplanned) prompting of Biden. Key subgroups like white voters (53 percent support legalization/43 percent oppose it) and voters aged 40-49 (52 percent support) are only narrowly on board with legalization. And, in an election year, no politician — including Obama — wants to tackle an issue where public opinion is that closely divided.
Update III: According to the Huffington Post, "The plan had been to announce his position before the Democratic National Convention. But after Vice President Joseph Biden declare his support for marriage equality on Sunday, the issue touched off a political firestorm and the timeframe for Obama's announcement was expedited."
Update IV: Just in case you were wondering, Mitt Romney was not swayed by Obama's announcement. "I have the same view on marriage that I had when I was governor,” Romney said in Oklahoma today. “I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman."