The first African-American president has now become the only sitting president ever to support same-sex marriage. It is a bold, historic move by Barack Obama, and has yet-undetermined political implications.
“I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” the president said yesterday in an interview with ABC News anchor Robin Roberts. “I had hesitated on gay marriage, in part, because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient. I was sensitive to the fact that, for a lot of people, the word marriage invoked very powerful traditions and religious beliefs.”
The president went further to explain how his Christian faith informed this decision. “The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president.”
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The move is courageous for a president only months before facing a critical re-election battle, in a nation that, most polls reveal, remains evenly divided on this cultural issue. President Obama framed the debate as a generational one, acknowledging that parents of some of Sasha and Malia’s friends were loving, gay couples.
“I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines,” an Obama campaign statement read, following the historic announcement, “but I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.”
President Obama’s announcement on such a controversial issue exhibits heft and leadership, especially considering that he runs the risks of alienating religious African-American voters, who remain among his most loyal constituency.
Obama has already delivered on many of his original campaign promises: from ending the discriminatory U.S. military policy ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ which excluded openly gay servicewomen and men, to offering partner benefits to federal workers and halting the defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal act which allows individual states to ignore same-sex marriages granted in other states.
Barack Obama’s White House has proven to be more progressive, inclusive and proactive on gay rights than previous one. It was clear to many observers, from his legislative record, that Obama fully supported equal marriage rights, and pundits questioned whether he was sticking to the rhetoric of “one man and one woman” as a politically convenient way to avoid controversy.
Vice President Joe Biden, however, known for gaffes and speaking inconvenient truths, pushed the bar last Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press when he admitted his belief that gay couples deserve marriage rights. A similar admission followed from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, which sparked a media firestorm about whether the president could long straddle the party line. But Barack Obama silenced the critics, risked political repercussions and created a stark contrast between himself, his candidacy and the presumed GOP rival and consummate flip-flopper, Mitt Romney.
Mitt Romney, during a 1994 Senate campaign against late Senator Ted Kennedy, promised “full equality for gay and lesbian citizens.” But yesterday the former Massachusetts governor responded to President Obama’s statements by saying “I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender, and I do not favor civil unions.” In an interview with Denver’s Fox affiliate KDVR-TV, Romney went further, “My view is that domestic partnership benefits, hospital visitation rights, and the like are appropriate, but the others are not.”
Mitt’s unveiled duplicity doesn’t end there. One political commentator noted that Romney is actually to the right of former President Bush on this issue. Several Bush administration officials and leading Republicans, like Ken Mehlman, Dick Cheney, Ted Olsen and even John McCain’s wife and daughter, Cindy and Meghan, are on the record in favor of gay unions.
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Yet last year Romney declared support for a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, and according to the right-wing National Organization for Marriage, signed a pledge in honor of his commitment to their cause.
Romney has also expressed his inclination to reinstate the ban on gays in the military, and pledged to defend the DOMA in court. As governor, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of gay unions, Romney initially agreed to adhere to the decision, but actively worked to dismantle it, going so far as to bar out-of-state couples from marrying. And in 2012, he gave a commencement address at Liberty University, a Christian Evangelical college, which despite receiving over $400 million in federal aid, explicitly denies admittance to openly gay students.
The crucial issue for Romney is gaining acceptability among social conservatives, as he needs them to rally behind him in his bid to steal the White House.
The primary fight against Santorum and Gingrich revealed the untenable position Romney holds within the divided Republican base, many of whom distrust his credibility as a true conservative and find his Mormon faith suspect. Ultimately, it seems Obama’s honesty places Romney’s reputation for being disingenuous on full display.
We asked Joe Watkins, Republican Strategist and former adviser to George H.W. Bush, what affect President Obama’s statement would have on the presumptive Republican nominee. “It’s relatively early in the campaign,” Watkins said. “If the election was held today the major issue would still be the economy, and how peoples’ personal lives are affected.”
When asked if there will be any negative effects on Obama’s re-election, Watkins was candid. “This clarifies Obama’s stance on the issue. That’s a good thing. And as for black voters, it won’t move the numbers in any significant way. But for black pastors it places them in an awkward position. They know what the scriptures say, and what they tell their congregations, so it’s a complicated issue. Nevertheless I am confident most people will still support the president regardless.”
Watkins continued, “For Mitt Romney it helps him to appeal to conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Protestants: most of whom he has struggled to convince.”
For Rev. Delmon Coates, a staunch supporter of President Obama and pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church, an 8,000 member congregation -and largely African-American — the answer is clear. “I commend the president for his courage. As people of faith, we are called to live by our faith, not legislate it. Citizens don’t have a right to impose their theological beliefs on others.”
Follow Edward Wyckoff Williams on Twitter at @WyckoffWilliams