President Barack Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage, a politically charged play that dramatically distances him from Mitt Romney even before the Republican’s presidential campaign is officially out of the gate.
Mr. Obama’s prime time announcement on Wednesday infuses a volatile new element into the race for the White House that has been, until now, largely focused on jobs and the economy. But it is a calculated play. Mr. Obama’s stance is likely to energize his political base and frame Mr. Romney more starkly as a social conservative, while carrying a more minor a risk of alienating more rightwing voters who had never supported him in the first place, analysts said.
Marriage laws are made by states, not the federal government. So while Mr. Obama is now the first sitting president to say he supports gay marriage, his statement carries no implications beyond its political stagecraft.
The President’s stance brings him in line with the swelling ranks of Democratic officials who support same-sex marriage, but more crucially it echoes the views of a growing majority of Americans. By declaring a position, after coming under pressure to make his views known, he also appears in sharp contrast to Mr. Romney, who has said he unequivocally opposes same-sex unions, but has been reluctant to discuss the issue in his own attempt to cast himself as more centrist than the Republicans who contested him for the nomination.
“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Mr. Obama told ABC News in an interview.
He said his position on gay marriage had changed over time. He credited friends, his wife and his daughters for shaping his current view.
“I had hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” Mr. Obama said. “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word ‘marriage’ was something that invokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs.”
He added: “I’ve always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally.”
He sought to counter potential objections to same-sex marriage grounded in religion by invoking the “golden rule.” “The thing at the root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule – you know treat others the way you would want to be treated,” he said. “And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president.”
As many as four state legislatures are poised to put the issue to a vote this fall, before the Nov. 6 election.
But Mr. Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage comes during a week marked by bold moves meant to unsettle Mr. Romney even before he has technically clinched the Republican nomination.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama pressed a deadlocked Congress to pass key legislation meant to stimulate job creation and reform housing finance rules. There is virtually no hope of the ‘to do’ list actually getting done. Rather, the pressure was intended to present Republicans as blocking his efforts to help average Americans. The Obama campaign also launched a slick $25-million television campaign defending his record as president.
The timing of his change of heart may bolster his chances for a second term, but it also stoked some frustration in Democratic and gay rights circles because he didn’t make his announcement earlier. Thirty states have embraced constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, including North Carolina which put the issue to a vote Tuesday.
Mr. Obama’s statement, though later than some would have liked, was enthusiastically praised by gay-rights activists, many of whom believed the President privately supported gay marriage, but could not do so publically until after the election. “Today, President Obama made history by boldly stating that gay and lesbian Americans should be fully and equally part of the fabric of American society and that our families deserve nothing less than the equal respect and recognition that comes through marriage,” Joe Solmonese, the president of Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest gay advocacy group, said in a statement.
Despite the state votes banning gay marriage, political support for it is growing at quick pace as voter demographics shift from old to young. Nationwide, according the Pew Research Center, a plurality of swing voters favour same-sex marriage, 47 per cent to 39 per cent, and outside the conservative South, the margin widens to a majority of 53 per cent in favour and 35 per cent opposed.
Mr. Obama’s declaration does carry political risk, but it is limited. A majority of African Americans, for example, oppose gay marriage. But 95 per cent of black voters, according to the Center’s research, prefer him to Mr. Romney, so he does not risk losing them in significant numbers due to his stance on gay marriage.
Mr. Romney, for his part, seemed reluctant to reiterate his stance on same-sex marriage after a campaign speech in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Wednesday.
“This is a very tender and sensitive topic,” Mr. Romney said, “as are many social issues. But I have the same view I’ve had since, well, since running for office.”
Mr. Romney, who has been accused of flip-flopping, tried to pin the same accusation on his rival. Asked whether the President’s “evolution” on the subject amounted to inconsistency, he replied: “You’ll be able to make that determination on your own.”
Editor's note: Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, is opposed to same-sex marriage. Incorrect information appeared in Thursday's paper and in an online version of this article.