Making his first bid for elected office in 1996, Barack Obama offered his full-throated supported for marriage equality, answering on a questionnaire, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." As he ascended the political ranks, however, Obama's position devolved; by the time of his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, he maintained that while he opposed same-sex marriage, he favored civil unions for gay couples, a stance Obama would maintain until he re-embraced marriage equality in a 2012 interview with ABC's Robin Roberts.
Was Obama lying about his opposition to same-sex marriage? That's the question sparked anew by a passage in his former strategist David Axelrod's new memoir, "Believer: My Forty Year in Politics." In a revelation that's stunning primarily because of its source and its frankness, Axelrod confirms what many have long suspected: Obama formulated his public position based on pure political calculation.
“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,’” Axelrod writes, as Time first reported.
For Obama, it was a tortured stand to take. "I’m just not very good at bullshitting," he lamented to Axelrod, after a series of awkward attempts to coherently explain his position in debates and interviews.
The president, you'll be shocked to learn, disputes the idea that he would ever be so cynical. In an interview with BuzzFeed on Tuesday, Obama contended that Axelrod is "mixing up my personal feelings with my position on the issue." Fending off charges of crass calculation, Obama framed his erstwhile position as a good-faith effort to marry his commitment to gay equality with a respect for religiously-based opposition to same-sex nuptials.
"I always felt that same-sex couples should be able to enjoy the same rights, legally, as anybody else, and so it was frustrating to me not to, I think, be able to square that with what were a whole bunch of religious sensitivities out there," he said.
"So my thinking at the time was that civil unions — which I always supported — was a sufficient way of squaring the circle. That, OK, we won’t call it 'marriage,' we’ll call it 'civil unions,' same-sex couples will have the same rights as anybody else, but the word 'marriage' with its religious connotations historically would be preserved for marriages between men and women," Obama continued, adding that he later came to accept that this separate-but-equal formula was much more separate than equal.
The bullshitting, it seems, continues.
While Obama avows that he personally wrestled with the marriage issue for years -- citing his 1996 questionnaire answer as an example of his "struggling with what was a real issue at the time" -- that only convolutes his account.
Consider his reference to "religious sensitivities out there," which strongly implies that Obama was responding to others' religious objections. Let's put aside the debate over the patently abhorrent and unconstitutional idea that policymakers should ever employ religion to deny a minority group its civil rights; Obama has completed his much-ballyhooed evolution on the issue, so there's no use relitigating that now. What's noteworthy -- and what further muddles his story -- is that Obama now dissociates himself from those religious opponents, even though, as Axelrod alludes to, he once cited his own religious faith in justifying his position.
During a 2008 interview with evangelical pastor Rick Warren, Obama declared, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian … it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.” That dovetailed with language Obama used at other points during his first presidential campaign.
Of course, as Paul Waldman writes, many observers thought even then that it was only a matter of time before Obama returned to his 1996 position and championed the right of gay couples to marry; while marriage equality had not yet garnered majority support, the trend lines in opinion surveys were unmistakable.
Obama could acknowledge that for years, he concealed his true views on marriage equality in an effort to skirt political controversy. That would represent a concession to a serious moral failure, but it would have to be weighed against Obama's laudable legacy as the president who signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act; the commander in chief who repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell; the first sitting president to back marriage equality; and the first chief executive to ban federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Given that legacy, it's fair to ask why we're re-hashing a position Obama abandoned nearly three years ago. But Obama's rapid political ascent was propelled by his brand as a politician who shunned the Clintonian, focus group-tested approach to politics. Dinging primary rival Hillary Clinton in 2007, Obama bemoaned her strategy of offering "vague, calculated answers to suit the politics of the moment, instead of clear, consistent principles about how you would lead America."
It may be humbling, but Obama would save himself further embarrassment if he simply admitted that he hasn't always heeded his own words.