Monday’s White House briefing consisted mainly of Press Secretary Robert Gibbs not answering questions about the specifics of President Obama‘s State of the Union address, including whether he would bring up same-sex marriage in some form. The Blade‘s Chris Johnson asked Gibbs about a 1996 questionnaire that indicated Obama’s support for same-sex marriage, and I followed up by asking if the President was any closer to revealing his “evolved” personal beliefs on the subject. Gibbs pointed to previous remarks by the President, and said it’s an issue that he “thinks a lot about,” but there are no immediate plans for him to address the issue.
Chris Johnson opened by asking Gibbs about a 1996 questionnaire that indicated then-candidate for Illinois Senate Barack Obama “favor(ed) legalizing same-sex marriages,” and Gibbs referred him to responses by Obama’s 2008 campaign that indicated that such questionnaires were filled out by then-campaign manager Carol Harwell:
Transcript (via email from The White House)
Christopher Johnson: I have some questions for you on marriage. Back in 1996, when the President was running to become Illinois state senator, he stated in a questionnaire response to what is now the Windy City Times that he supports same-sex marriage. He wrote, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” That’s not the President’s current position. Has he backtracked on an earlier commitment he made to gay and lesbian Americans?
MR. GIBBS: I think there’s a whole host of issues that I would direct you to during the campaign on different questionnaires. And I would again reiterate what the President has said recently on that issue.
Christopher Johnson: But do you dispute the accuracy of this questionnaire response?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’m happy to send you the several thousand clips of which went around during the course of 2008 on a whole host of those issues.
It’s unclear what clips Gibbs is referring to. The campaign did respond to questions about two other 1996 questionnaires, but on this specific questionnaire, I’ve only been able to locate some statements by Obama that gave mixed signals on the seeming shift. I’ve asked the White House to provide some background on this, and am awaiting a response.
Whether or not you heavily weigh that 15 year-old questionnaire, recent statements by President Obama indicate that he is moving toward a revision of his personal views on same-sex marriage. I asked Gibbs if the President is any closer to speaking out on those views, either at the SOTU, or in the near future:
Transcript: (via email from The White House)
Tommy Christopher: And secondly, I had a follow from last week. I asked you last week if the President was going to talk about repealing DOMA or about same-sex marriage in the speech. And if you want to volunteer an answer on that, you can. But I also asked you if —
MR. GIBBS: I will volunteer that, as I told Keith, it’s around 9:05 p.m. tomorrow.
Tommy Christopher: My follow-up is —
MR. GIBBS: Your follow-up to my non-answer? (Laughter.)
Tommy Christopher: I know, but I also asked you if the President — he said his personal view on same-sex marriage is evolving, and so I wanted to follow up and see, has he come to a new personal view and —
MR. GIBBS: As I said earlier, I don’t have an update to what — to reiterating that it’s something that he thinks a lot about.
Tommy Christopher: Do you know when he might speak about that if he’s not going to speak about it?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t. I don’t.
Tommy Christopher: Is there any plan in the future?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know if — I don’t have that with me.
Coupled with Gibbs’ response to the same question last week, some may wonder if the President is sending smoke signals on the issue of same-sex marriage, or just blowing smoke. I believe it is the former, as I have for some time. When he says his views are “evolving,” he’s obviously signaling a move toward favoring same-sex marriage, and so the question is “When will he stop thinking, and start speaking?”
Not tomorrow night, it appears. All indications are that the President’s aim with the SOTU is to emphasize the economy, and to be a unifying force. Perhaps the calculation is that a paragraph on gay marriage will be seen as divisive by socially conservative Republicans (and some Democrats, to be fair).
That calculation may well be true inside the bubble of Washington politics, but in the rest of the country, 65–70% of Americans favor some form of marriage, equality, and the majority of that number favors full legal marriage. Most of the country, then, is at the tipping point between civil unions and full legal marriage, with a shrinking minority opposed to any legal recognition. A nudge in the right direction could really tip the scales.
On the other hand, pressing the issue at the wrong time could lead to a backlash on the issue. The question then becomes, when is the right time? With Democrats looking at a long, difficult road back to the majority, and the President staring at a tough re-election campaign, it’s hard to see when the stars might align for same-sex marriage.
President Obama showed good judgment when it came to the repeal of DADT, but the goalposts for marriage equality are different. Repeal of DOMA is a long way off, but after a promising start a few years back, state-by-state progress on marriage equality has stalled. If President Obama is powerless to lead a policy charge on gay marriage, he ought to lead a spiritual one.
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