After President Barack Obama finally gave his explicit support to gay marriage in May, The New York Times claimed it was the culmination of “a wrenching personal transformation on the issue.” If so, Obama changed back into the person he was in 1996, when he was a political novice running for the Illinois Senate. “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages,” he told a gay newspaper back then, “and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

Running for re-election two years later, Obama already had learned the value of reticence regarding touchy social issues. “Do you believe that the Illinois government should recognize same-sex marriages?” a questionnaire asked. Obama’s response: “Undecided.”

Evidently the wrenching decision Obama had to make was not whether he thought gay couples should have a right to marry but whether he should say so out loud. The fact that it took 16 years reflects the gradual evolution of public opinion on the question, which ultimately made it thinkable for him to tell ABC News “it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

The immediate impetus for that affirmation was the fallout from Vice President Joseph Biden’s unguarded comments about gay marriage three days earlier, which drew unwelcome attention to Obama’s studied ambiguity on the subject. “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying [each other] 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 did—or at least, he was aware that many voters did, which is why he had been careful to avoid endorsing “gay marriage” as such. Instead he advocated a “strong version” of “civil unions,” one that would give gay couples “all the rights” of straight couples, except the right to call their relationship a marriage.

Obama understood that the name really does matter to some opponents, mainly because they conflate civil marriage—the legal arrangement recognized by the state—with “the sacred institution of marriage” (as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney calls it), which is defined by religious traditions that date back a lot further than marriage licenses. As Obama put it in a 2007 presidential 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 leery people Obama had in mind included not only older swing voters but also crucial parts of his base: Seven out of 10 black voters supported California’s ban on gay marriage in 2008, as did most Latinos. At the same time, Obama did not want to alienate gay donors or young voters, who overwhelmingly support gay marriage. Hence his “evolving” views on the issue, which seemed to be driven by polling data.

While recent polls asking for a simple yes or no find support for gay marriage as high as 53 percent, surveys that give people additional options suggest opinions are more complex. In a February New York Times/CBS News poll, 40 percent of respondents supported “legal marriage” for gay couples, up from 22 percent in 2004. An additional 23 percent favored “civil unions,” while 31 percent said there should be “no legal recognition at all.” An August 2010 Fox News poll had similar results.

Obama’s support for “strong” civil unions straddled two positions that together account for more than 60 percent of voters (and an even bigger majority among people apt to vote for him). By contrast, “no legal recognition” for same-sex couples clearly has become a minority position—a fact that Mitt Romney, who talks a lot about protecting marriage but very little about fair treatment of gay couples, may have to contend with as he repositions himself for the general election.  

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum is a nationally syndicated columnist.