Obama's Gay Marriage Equivocation

The marriage whose name the president dare not speak

"I favor legalizing same-sex marriages," Barack Obama told a gay newspaper while seeking his first term as an Illinois state senator in 1996, "and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." When Obama ran for re-election in 1998, he took the National Political Awareness Test, which among other things asked, "Do you believe that the Illinois government should recognize same-sex marriages?" His response: "Undecided." 

It took Obama only two years to learn the political value of reticence regarding touchy social issues—a concept that evidently still eludes Vice President Joe Biden, whose unguarded comments about gay marriage on Sunday called unwelcome attention to his boss's studied ambiguity on the subject. Yet a close look at Obama's statements over the years suggests his spokesman is telling the truth when he says Biden's position is essentially the same as the president's.

"I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties," Biden said on Meet the Press. "And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that."

Obama does—or at least, he is aware that many voters do, which is why he has been careful to avoid an explicit endorsement of "gay marriage" as such, to the dismay of some supporters. Instead he says homosexual and heterosexual couples should be treated equally under the law.

"The government has to treat all citizens equally," Obama said during a 2007 presidential debate. "I am a strong supporter not of a weak version of civil unions, but of a strong version, in which the rights that are conferred at the federal level to persons who are part of the same-sex union are compatible. When it comes to federal rights, the over 1,100 rights that right now are not being given to same-sex couples, I think that's unacceptable."

That position helps explain Obama's 2011 decision to stop defending the constitutionality of the statute that bars the federal government from recognizing state-licensed same-sex marriages. Announcing that decision in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration had concluded that legal classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to "heightened scrutiny" under the equal protection guarantee implicit in the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause.

Although one might surmise that Obama would apply a similar analysis to state bans on same-sex marriage under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, he has not said so explicitly. But he has opposed such bans—including not only measures aimed at abolishing existing gay marriage rights (such as California's Proposition 8) but also measures aimed at foreclosing such rights (such as North Carolina's Amendment 1).

At the same time, Obama has said (while serving in the U.S. Senate), "Personally, I do believe that marriage is between a man and a woman." Instead he has advocated "civil unions" that give gay couples "all the rights" of straight couples—except the right to call their relationship a marriage.

Here is how he explained the distinction in that 2007 debate: "We should try to disentangle what has historically been the issue of the word marriage, which has religious connotations to some people, from the civil rights that are given to couples." The people Obama had in mind include not only older swing voters but also crucial parts of his base: Seven out of 10 black voters supported Proposition 8 in 2008, as did most Latinos. Meanwhile, Obama does not want to alienate young voters, who overwhelmingly support gay marriage.  

So much for the crass political calculations underlying Obama's straddle. Believe it or not, there is also a principle here: The "sacred institution" that Mitt Romney, Obama's presumptive Republican opponent, is so keen to preserve existed long before governments started doling out marriage licenses and should not depend on the state for its continued legitimacy. 

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • knockatize||

    If only there were somebody with the unquestioned moral standing of a Nobel Peace Prize winner to let political considerations be damned and speak plainly on basic issues of human rights.

  • Suki||

    Sadly, Arafat died a few years ago.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    President Tabula Rasa doesn't seem to be having as easy a time with it as candidate Tabula Rasa did. A scant four years later people are actually starting to question his stances. If only it was on something with a little more weight than this.

  • ||

    President Tabula Rasa

    Very appropriate.

    'Twas the basis for one of John Locke's essays as well.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Marriage "existed long before governments started doling out marriage licenses and should not depend on the state for its continued legitimacy."

    But politicians and judges have the right to arbitrarily redefine marriage!

  • sarcasmic||

    I find it humorous how so many who call themselves "libertarian" have monster woodies when it comes to using government force to redefine marriage.

    It's especially funny when they start with the language of the left and spout on about "faaaaaaaaaairness" and "equaaaaaaaaaaaaality", immediately followed with personal attacks of "haaaaaaaatred" and "biiiiiiiiigotry".

  • Citizen Nothing||

    So if the government says no gayz allowed on its roadz, then you're cool with that?

  • sarcasmic||

    When exactly were you lobotomized?

  • Citizen Nothing||

    So if the government says tax breaks for da heteros but not da homos, you're cool with that?

  • sarcasmic||

    It's OK if you don't remember when they removed a chunk of your brain.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    But doesn't the government already use force to define marriage? If I want to marry two women at the same time, the government will throw me in jail. Even if all parties involved are consenting adults.

    Believe it or not, marriage as you know it hasn't existed since the beginning of time, despite what the SoCons screech. If one opens a history book, they will find that the institution of marriage, as we know it, is largely a product of the Victorian era.

  • sarcasmic||

    Thank you for explaining why the government shouldn't be in the marriage business.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    So as long as the government is in the roadz biz, it's ok for them to decide who gets to use 'em, no?
    I mean, if you're fighting to use government force to grant equal access to the government roadz, then you're obviously no libertarian!

  • sarcasmic||

    False equivalencies are false.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Homophobes are homophobes.

  • tarran||

    Yes, they are, but how about addressing his point instead of throwing out irrelevant tautologies?

  • sarcasmic||

    He has a point?

  • Citizen Nothing||

    You still here, sarc? I thought you were over at Morning Links trying again to establish your hetero bona fides by proclaiming which women you'd fuck. NTTAWWT.

  • sarcasmic||

    Thank you CN for proving my point.

  • Proprietist||

    I think we all agree that government should not be in the marriage business. But if it IS in the marriage business and grants benefits based upon this status, the 14th Amendment mandates equal protections under the law.

    Your criticism is as dumb as those who criticize Gary Johnson for supporting the FairTax. No, it's not ideal and not the ultimate libertarian solution, but it is making the best of current political realities. Compared to the income tax or the regular sales tax, it's a major improvement.

  • ||

    The 14th Amendment distributes the rights guaranteed in the constitution to the states. There is no constitutional right to be married for anyone - straight or gay. Marriage has always been administered by the states. 10th Amendment ring a bell?

  • Suki||

    +100

  • Proprietist||

    What's wrong with fairness and equality when talking about applications of government? There's nothing at all unlibertarian about that. We're not talking about economic or social equality of outcomes like Leftists fantasize about, we're talking about equal access to and treatment by government.

  • ||

    Non-sequitur since legalizing gay marriage would still leave single people and people in other types of relationships out to lunch. We're talking about expanding an illegitimate function of government. What's unlibertarian about that? Not much, except everything.

  • Diesel Weasel||

    The excepted, most common summary of a libertarian view is economically conservative, socially liberal. So yes, we do. Though obviously we don't support things like affirmative action, or playing the race card. And we don't use "fairness" and "equality" to refer to property or the distribution of wealth.

    You seem like someone who would fit in much better at the Media Research Center, Conservapedia, or the AFA.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Incidentally, shouldn't you be giving Biden some love for being plainspoken on this issue in contrast to Obama's waffling?

  • Suki||

    Give B. Hussein-O a break. Some guy probably broke his heart when he was filling out the form.

  • ||

    Barry and Joey sitting in a tree
    K-I-S-S-I-N-G

  • Barack||

    First YES
    Then NO
    Now he's EVOLVING. What a Flip Flopper.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    In politics, no means yes and yes means tax increases.

  • Suki||

  • ||

    a concept that evidently still eludes Vice President Joe Biden, whose unguarded comments about gay marriage on Sunday called unwelcome attention to his boss's studied ambiguity on the subject

    Politely telling people interested in equality under the law to go fuck themselves isn't "ambiguity".

  • wareagle||

    I saw that, too. There is no ambiguity about Obama's stance. He has been crystal clear about his opposition to gay marriage. What really pisses me off is how the media let him weasel around it with bullshit like "ambiguity" and "evolving". No, he is against it and is only looking at a rhetorical change of heart for the sake of votes.

  • ||

    F-I-S-T-I-N-G is more accurate.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Does he then EAT DA POO POO?

  • Bardas Phocas||

    See, in Virginia, NC, Ohio, and Penn - there are these Black Ministers. They, pretty much universally, hate the very thought of queers getting government sanctioned marriages. They are willing to be bullshitted for racial solidarity and political patonage, but if Barry goes full gay marriage they have to make a stand. I don't think they'll suddenly be convincing their congregants to vote for Mittens but on voting day, they are the guys controling the keys to the church van. The church van that will deliver all those elderly church ladies (who are fantasising about hot Obama sex) to the polls and they make up as much as 20% of some districs Black vote.

    So, yes Gay Marriage -> no Ministers -> no van -> no Church ladies - no NC and Virginia
    -> Yes, third Obama autobiography in 2013 "Obama 3: Electric Boogaloo"

  • Suki||

    The ministers might be coming to the gunfight with a knife if they speak out against Maobama from the pulpit. They have that tax exempt status to worry about. The one that is never threatened if you support Democrats.

  • R C Dean||

    Oh, they won't publicly speak out against Obama. They'll just go passive - not public speak out for him (as much), not put themselves in harness for voter turnout, that kind of thing.

  • wareagle||

    the black church angle is actually an important one. It was black churches at least as much as LDS who blocked the initiative in California, but the left will not hammer blacks.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Exactly. But let's not discount the fact that Obama is probably a homophobe himself.

  • Rich||

  • sarcasmic||

    Funny how some people who call themselves "libertarian" will reduce themselves to the equivalent of the left's race card by accusing anyone who doesn't support redefining marriage of being a homophobe.

  • T o n y||

    There's no coherent secular reason to deny equal marriage rights. You certainly haven't articulated one. Your entire argument seems to amount to "it makes me feel icky." If you don't think homosexual couples are inherently worth less than heterosexual couples, then what's your problem?

  • sarcasmic||

    what's your problem?

    Your dishonesty.

    If you were honest and said that you wanted to use force of government to redefine marriage for the purpose of changing how society views homosexuals, then I wouldn't be saying a peep.

    But you're not. You're dressing it up in lies about "equality under the law".

    Be honest and I'll shut up.

  • T o n y||

    Equality under the law is enough for me. I do care about changing social attitudes, but that's happening naturally anyway. And I fail to see what's wrong with trying to change social attitudes when those social attitudes are small-minded and bigoted.

  • T o n y||

    Your argument is we shouldn't allow equality under the law because it might make some bigots uncomfortable. It is IN FACT to say that bigots have more of a right to legal discrimination against gays than gays have to equality under the law. Your argument is ridiculous and contemptuous.

  • sarcasmic||

    I am not making an argument other than pointing out the dishonesty in yours.

  • T o n y||

    I haven't said anything dishonest. I want legal equality and a more tolerant society. I don't want government to force you to change your mind about anything though. If legal equality has that effect, then good. Changing social attitudes toward more tolerance of gay people is a good thing. You're flailing. It's so much simpler just to be a libertarian here, you know.

  • sarcasmic||

    I haven't said anything dishonest.

    I'm glad I wasn't drinking coffee when I read that or I'd be cleaning off my keyboard and monitor!

  • wareagle||

    govt cannot enforce tolerance. It is something that happens organically. Two generations ago, the term "gay marriage" did not even exist. Today, it's a hot button topic. And your claims of wanting a more tolerant society but not wanting govt to enforce it are counter-intuitive. Besides, you are not chasing tolerance; you seek mass acceptance of the things you favor. No one gets that.

  • T o n y||

    No one except white heterosexuals. The rest of us have to struggle for acceptance. I don't care if you're a small-minded idiot. You'll die eventually and your children will be smarter and more open-minded. To be clear, for about the 5th time, while I think government should recognize gay marriages as the exact equivalent of straight marriages, I don't favor government telling people what to think. If government having correct policy conflicts with how certain people want to think, then there is an ample supply of tissue in this world for you to cry into.

  • trythisout||

    There's no coherent secular reason to have marriage in the first place. If you're a Theist, God created marriage. If you're an Atheist, men created marriage as a means of property rights of their wives and children.

    Do secularists want to continue what they perceive as their tradition of marriage based on property rights? Sounds almost equivalent to slavery. If you link the two, wouldn't that mean the secularist would want to ABOLISH marriage altogether?

  • T o n y||

    I think marriage is an increasingly outdated thing and am personally against it. But I don't foresee it being abolished any time soon, so the only real policy option here is legal equality within the existing marriage framework. Fantasizing about utopian alternatives is fun and all, but not particularly productive.

  • trythisout||

    So by your logic, any policy that won't be abolished any time soon we should just submit to?

    Since Affirmative Action won't be abolished any time soon, we should work harder to make sure all minority races get jobs despite qualifications? Or since the smoking ban in restaurants won't be abolished, we should make sure more restaurants ban smoking?

    Your solution sounds like typical politics: we don't really want to change anything, we just want to tweak what's already there.

  • ||

    There's no coherent secular reason to have the state bestow special benefits on two people because they were stupid enough to bet each other half their shit that they wouldn't have sex with anybody else for the rest of their lives. As soon as you get on board for either eliminating "marriage" as a state institution or expanding it so that no one, including single people, is excluded from its benefits, you'll have an honest point about "equality under the law". Until then, you're a rent-seeking hypocrite.

  • Proprietist||

    Well, YOU support redefining marriage by saying government wouldn't define it.

    We have three options:
    1.) Government does not define marriage
    2.) Government discriminates against gay people in the name of traditional marriage
    3.) Government grants all consenting adults legally defined marriages

    Most of us here prefer 1, then 3 and find 2 unacceptable. If 1 is not an option, we'll take 3 until it is.

    We're drawing our conclusions about you from the fact you seem to prefer the current legally discriminatory status quo to marriage equality in the interim. "Undefine marriage" is not an option on these ballot initiatives.

  • ||

    (3) is a false premise. There is not one single person advocating for expanding marriage to "all consenting adults". They are advocating expanding it exactly enough so that 2 gay people fit into it. It's roughly analogous to maintaining the institution of slavery, but freeing the blacks so that they are allowed to enslave Asians and Hispanics alongside their white counterparts. That's bullshit. It's sophistry. And it certainly isn't libertarian.

  • Noe||

    I think President Obama is doing his best to be at the "safe" side but he is very obvious though. I for one believe that marriage should always be considered sacred. It should always be a union between a man and a woman. If they are going to consider same-sex marriage then they should have a limitation so as it would not equate to the normal marriage a couple should have. As for President Obama, he should continue to be flexible in all of his answers and there should be no signs of doubt.

    Noe from Devis peinture voiture 

  • ||

    ^This is how retarded your arguments look sarcasmic^

  • rho||

    Gay marriage is the stupidest issue ever.

    Nobody cares about it, except the ones that do, and they care too fucking much.

  • T o n y||

    What good have social conservatives ever done for this country? It's always been a reactionary movement, not a principled one--with the single focus of maintaining white male heterosexual dominance in society.

    Unfortunately, Obama must win at least a couple states with large populations of these idiots. If I had to choose between Obama saying his true feelings on gay marriage and him winning the election, I choose the latter. But since his true feelings are quite obvious (at least half the country is OK with gay marriage by now, and Obama is surely more cosmopolitan than bumpkin), he now risks tarnishing himself as a liar and opportunist on this issue.

    OTOH, on the specific issue of gay equality--on which liberals and libertarians should be in agreement, morons like sarcasmic notwithstanding, he has done more than any prior president, and more than a president Romney would likely be allowed to do.

    Not depending on the state for legitimacy is nonsensical--if you want to call yourself married, nobody is going to throw you in jail for doing so without a state license. The only thing at issue, of course, is equality under the law.

  • sarcasmic||

    Being that any equivalent legal status for same sex couples that does not include the word "marriage" has been soundly rejected by the homosexual community, any honest person (that excludes Tony) must conclude that the word is more important than "equality under the law".

  • T o n y||

    Separate but equal was long ago recognized as inherently unequal.

    Nobody wants to force you to grow up and be a sensible, reasonable person. You're clearly going to your grave a provincial myopic idiot. It's just that you can't truly have equality unless things are, you know, equal. And it's not just about a word--nowhere are civil unions the equivalent of marriage with respect to legal rights and entitlements, especially since there is no such recognition of equality at the federal level.

    Your fixation on the word is clear evidence that you don't want the institutions to be equal, but that you want heterosexual marriage to be placed on a slightly higher pedestal. Perhaps we would both be OK with taking the word "marriage" out of all statutes. So convince heterosexuals to go along with it and everything is fine.

    And there's nothing wrong with wanting to change social attitudes. It's part and parcel of the equality movement. But we do so value the patronizing input of heterosexual white males when it comes to our equal rights. You do know best, after all.

  • sarcasmic||

    Perhaps we would both be OK with taking the word "marriage" out of all statutes.

    Bull plop. Any honest person can see that the "equality movement" is about social approval, not legal protections.

    So convince heterosexuals to go along with it and everything is fine.

    That's your job, not mine.

    All I'm doing is pointing out your intellectual dishonesty. I have no dog in this fight.

  • T o n y||

    What is wrong with wanting social approval, again? Are you saying you don't "approve" of homosexuals, or are you saying that people's right not to approve of the way certain people are born should dictate civil rights or public policy?

  • sarcasmic||

    What is wrong with wanting social approval, again?

    When did I say that that is wrong? All I am asking is that your argument be honest. Stop with the subterfuge.

  • T o n y||

    It seems very much like you're inventing a nefarious conspiracy in order to excuse yourself for not having the correct and sensible position on this issue. Why can't you say you favor marriage equality, regardless of what agenda the scheming gays may have? Isn't the principle of legal equality valid regardless?

  • sarcasmic||

    I favor same sex couples having equivalent legal protections as opposite sex couples.

    I do not support redefining marriages as the means of doing it.

    And I will continue to speak up when people like you put forth the lie that redefining marriage is the only means of accomplishing your goal.

    If that is your goal.

  • T o n y||

    It's been my experience that homophobes ought to tread lightly when it comes to imagining hidden psychological motives.

  • sarcasmic||

    It's been my experience that liars lie.
    You confirm this day in and day out.

  • ||

    The cool thing about opinions on what is "sensible" and "correct" on social issues, is that they are like assholes: Everybody's got one, but not everybody wants a cock in it.

    The day you become the arbiter of what is "correct" or "sensible", every libertarian on the planet should commit collective seppuku.

    You have no interest whatsoever in "equality under the law". You want your economic rent, and everybody else can go fuck themselves. Same as the "reactionary" straights who want to keep their club exclusive. If you get the special state privileges that accompany marriage, as soon as the next guy down the chain wants to open up your club to include his relationship preference (or lack thereof), it'll be pretty funny watching you instantly turn into a conservative.

  • wareagle||

    give tony enough room, he tells you he is a partisan tool all by himself. In his own words, he's okay with Obama basically lying about an issue, with being the same sort of "hick" many so-cons are to tony, and with being little more than a political huckster as long as he wins. Team, team, team above all.

    By the way, you idiot, "calling" yourself marriage is about as useful as calling yourself a car when it comes to taking advantage of the benefits society confers on marriage. Without a license, you're just another loon in the attic though, in your case, that would be redundant.

  • T o n y||

    I freely admit to being a partisan. Yes I think Obama being reelected is more important--for gay equality among many other issues--than Obama saying his true feelings on gay marriage. When you find the perfect politician--one who is electable and says everything he believes at the same time--do let me know.

  • wareagle||

    Obama could give two shits about gay equality or gays in general. Just stop. For you, this is about team above all else. Obama has supported tactics that, had Bush been behind them, you would be screaming your blue head off. By the way, Obama's "true feelings" about gay marriage are well-known: he opposes it and always has.

  • T o n y||

    You'd know that he hasn't always opposed it if you had read this very article.

    I'm partisan but it's not blind team allegiance. In fact it's mostly about keeping Republicans out of power, because they have done massive harm to my country and vow to do even more if they get the chance. Democrats are mostly useless too, but at least they're not dangerous.

  • Paul.||

    I'm partisan but it's not blind team allegiance. In fact it's mostly about keeping Republicans out of power

    These two statements essentially contradict eachother.

  • perlhaqr||

    Democrats are mostly useless too, but at least they're not dangerous.

    Ok, I was with you on the marriage for gays thing, but this is just fucking retarded. Democrats from Wilson to FDR to Obama have been responsible for some of the absolutely worst things that have ever happened to this country.

  • T o n y||

    Only if you think Glenn Beck is a preeminent scholar of history.

  • ||

    Substitution: Only if you think collectivist authoritarianism is a bad thing.

    Let it be known that Tony supports internment of Japanese American citizens and shilling propaganda for the KKK. Rah Rah Rah Team Blue!

  • Loki||

    the over 1,100 rights that right now are not being given to same-sex couples

    "Well there's your problem."

    Why is the government handing out special favors (note: not "rights") to some people based on how they arrange their private relationships?

  • ||

    ZOMG! HOMOPHOBE! Expanding the apparatus by which monogamous couples can seek rent from the state to include 2 people with the same genitalia will finally make everyone equal! LIBERTY!

  • R C Dean||

    See, I got no problem with civil unions for all. That is the "equality before the law" position.

    "Marriage", however, isn't a purely legal institution. Its a social one, and the term carries with it social approval.

    That's why the activists are dead set against civil unions/equality before the law. They don't want equality; they want the government to mandate approval of their private arrangements.

    And I'm not with them on that. Sorry. Do a search and replace in the statutes "marriage" -> "civil union", and replace any reference to "man and woman" with "consenting adults", and I'm on board. Overreach, or go crying to the courts, and you lose me.

  • sarcasmic||

    *like*

  • wareagle||

    then you will be interested to know that not only did NC basically reinforce an existing ban on gay marriage with its vote, it also did away with civil unions for couples of any orientation.

  • sarcasmic||

    Which is why I would have voted against it.

  • Paul.||

    I'd bitch about the lack of hat-tip, but since this was a full-length article, I'ma give it a pass.

  • The Derider||

    No longer equivocating:

    He supported gay marriage fully today.

  • ||

    Yeah, bad timing on this article. Obama is officially back to supporting gay marriage. But not a federal amendment. The states should be able to decide. But they should support full rights for gays. But we aren't going to make them. But maybe. No more equivocating.

  • BigT||

    People should have freedom of contract, and as far as the state is concerned, marriage is a contract - nothing more, nothing less. So any two (or more) people should be able to contract as they see fit. If hospitals want to require a max number of 'significant others' or family that can visit, etc that's their business, not the guv-a-mint's.

    MARRIAGE as a religious or social construct has nothing to do with the guv-u-mint.

  • ||

    You take that homophobic shit out to the street. Around here we support a federal amendment enshrining special state benefits for certain types of relationships like all small-government libertarians.

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