President Barack Obama came out in support of gay marriage Wednesday afternoon, ending a frenzy of speculation about his long “evolving” position and taking a major risk in his close re-election fight with presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
“I had hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient,” Obama told ABC’s Robin Roberts. “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word ‘marriage’ evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth.”
But Obama said he had talked with friends and family over several years and he ultimately changed his view.
“I 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,” he said.
Obama’s lack of a clear position on the issue had become untenable after members of his administration, including Vice President Joseph Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, declared support for gay marriage earlier this week. Initially, the Obama re-election campaign tried to downplay Biden’s comments, and White House spokesman Jay Carney spent much of this week deflecting questions on the issue.
Obama’s dodge made him look weak, but coming out for such a divisive issue also is a big political risk because voters across the country, including in North Carolina on Tuesday, have voted to ban gay marriage.
Romney repeated his opposition to gay marriage in an appearance later Wednesday afternoon.
He said states can make “decisions with regards to domestic partnership benefits, such as hospital visitation rights. Benefits and so forth of various kinds can be determined state by state. But my view is that marriage itself is a relationship between a man and a woman, and that’s my own preference.”
But Romney tempered his remarks, hinting at a likely GOP message that Obama has “flip-flopped” on the issue.
“I know other people have differing views. This is a very tender and sensitive topic, as are many social issues, but I have the same view that I’ve had since running for office,” Romney said.
Besides the political peril of embracing same-sex marriage, Obama could find himself in trouble for wading into a debate on social issues when voters are more concerned about the economy.
Both parties have drawn the ire of voters when they have appeared to get distracted by side issues that don’t address economic problems.
Even as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage on Fox Business on Wednesday, he took the time to note that House Republicans would be working to improve the country’s economic outlook.
“The American people are still asking the question, ‘Where are the jobs?’ and our focus is going to continue to be on the economy like it has been for the last year and a half,” Boehner said.
Still, a flood of Democratic lawmakers quickly issued statements praising the president, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), the most senior gay lawmaker in Congress who intends to marry before retiring later this year.
“I understand why a president facing a national election took some time in making this decision,” Frank said. He said the move wasn’t without political risk but predicted it would not cost Obama votes.
“Those opposed to legal equality for LGBT people were already inclined to oppose him, and that will make it easier for us to mobilize the people in this country who oppose discrimination to help re-elect him,” Frank said.
The political fallout is debatable — a Gallup poll shows the country split down the middle over the issue, with 50 percent support — but some key constituencies in important states remain opposed to same-sex marriage.
“Opinions on this issue are evolving faster than just about any other issue in the history of polling,” said influential Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, noting that even more Americans could support gay marriage six months from now than do today.
But Republicans aren’t so sure.
“It is terrible politics for a Democrat with swing voters in swing states,” said GOP strategist Brad Todd, who said it’s an issue that hurts Obama with a group he’s already struggling with because of the economy: working-class Democrats and independents. Todd added it’s also an issue that “divides a good bit of Obama’s base.”
The National Organization for Marriage, meanwhile, issued a release promising to defeat Obama.
“President Obama has made the definition of marriage a defining issue in the presidential contest, especially in swing states,” NOM President Brian Brown said.
Prominent Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, who is gay, cheered the move.
“I think it’s a great thing on all fronts,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. I think it’ll help him with every voter under the age of 40. I don’t think it’s limited just to the LGBT community.”
Elmendorf also said Republicans have to be careful, because attitudes are changing quickly.
“It’s moving fast, and I think Obama’s decision today was another sign that the world is changing,” he said.
Others predicted that Obama’s announcement could bring a wave of support from other politicians.
“I have to imagine that the purpose or value of the bully pulpit is to send a message that it’s OK to evolve to this position,” said one influential New York Democrat involved with marriage equality. “[Obama] coming out and supporting this will allow many Democrats — and Republicans too — who have been perhaps hiding” to change their positions.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Obama had “played politics” on the issue and that the GOP would stay firmly opposed to gay marriage.
Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) was one of the relatively few Republican lawmakers to blast out a statement, reaffirming his support for “traditional marriage.”
“President Obama’s announcement today is not surprising,” he said. “He is trying to shore up his liberal base in an election year.”
According to ABC, the president said he still supports states deciding the issue but that he’s confident Americans will grow comfortable with gay marriage. He noted his own daughters are comfortable with it.
“It’s interesting, some of this is also generational,” Obama said in the interview. “You know, Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table and we’re talking about their friends and their parents and Malia and Sasha, it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them and frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.”