“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.”

With these words, US President Barack Obama became the first US president to announce their official support of gay marriage, a tumultuous issue made even more politically powerful by a presidential election later this year.

While Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard today maintained her stance against gay marriage, Obama sat down for an interview with ABC News to discuss his views after North Carolina banned same-sex marriage this week. On Sunday US Vice-President Joe Biden told reporters he was “absolutely comfortable” with the idea of same-s-x marriage.

As Obama said to ABC News:

“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbours when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, 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.”

Obama’s comments overnight are a civil rights milestone, says Greg Sargent in The Washington Post. 

“Whatever the actual impact of this in legislative terms, this is a major historical and cultural moment, and the President deserves kudos for it. Yes, he had to be pushed into taking this step, and those who hammered him ceaselessly on the issue deserve enormous credit for making this happen. But Obama himself has, in various ways, let it be known that he wants people to go out there and make him do the right thing. In this case, he responded.”

Howard Kurtz in The Daily Beast agrees it’s a powerful message. “At the risk of resorting to hyperbole, this is a political earthquake that shakes the landscape by putting a divisive culture-war issue front and centre,” he writes.

Kurtz says the move will help focus Obama’s support from the younger people and gay Americans — particularly critical since one in six of Obama’s campaign donors are gay, but he’ll also face a backlash. “By taking a position that would have been politically unthinkable even four years ago, Obama is inviting the ire of roughly half the population that opposes gay marriage, many of them for religious reasons,” said Kurtz.

What impact will this have come election time? “It’s unclear exactly what impact Obama’s new gay marriage position will have on November’s election,” writes Josh Voorhees at Slate. “While his decision to leave the sidelines on the issue will likely energise many on the left, it’s also sure to rally the conservative base.”

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has long said that he believes marriage is only between a man and a woman. He re-affirmed that yesterday. “This is a very tender and sensitive topic,” said Romney, “as are many social issues. But I have the same view I’ve had since, well, since running for office.”

Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Nominee Committee was more blatant in his criticism, declaring that Obama was just playing politics with his announcement. “While President Obama has played politics on this issue, the Republican Party and our presumptive nominee Mitt Romney have been clear,” said Preibus in a statement. “We support maintaining marriage between one man and one woman and would oppose any attempts to change that.”

At the same time that Obama gave his interview, White House officials sent out a confidential talking points memo to Democrats. According to The New York Times, the memorandum noted this was Obama’s personal view and it wasn’t a federal issue, but also suggested how Democrats should frame the debate.The memo reads:

“In the end, the values that the president cares most deeply about is how we treat other people … The president and first lady are both practising Christians, and obviously this position may be considered to put them at odds with the views of others, but when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule: treat others the way you’d want to be treated …

“We make it absolutely clear that we are talking about civil marriages and civil laws … This isn’t a federal issue. We must be respectful of religious liberty, that churches and other faith institutions are still going to be able to make determinations about what their sacraments are, what they recognise.”

Obama emailed his supporters afterwards, asking them stand up with the President and declare their support. He also explained a little further on how he changed his mind. “Even at my own dinner table, when I look at Sasha and Malia, who have friends whose parents are same-sex couples, I know it wouldn’t dawn on them that their friends’ parents should be treated differently,” he wrote.

Politico outlines how Obama’s attitudes to gay marriage have “evolved” over the years through a series of quotes from the man himself.

In 1996 while running for the state Senate in Illinois:

“I favor legalising same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

An interview with Windy City Times, a gay newspaper from Chicago, in 2004:

“I am a fierce supporter of domestic-partnership and civil-union laws. I am not a supporter of gay marriage as it has been thrown about, primarily just as a strategic issue. I think that marriage, in the minds of a lot of voters, has a religious connotation. I know that’s true in the African-American community, for example. And if you asked people, ‘should gay and lesbian people have the same rights to transfer property, and visit hospitals, and etc,’ they would say, ‘absolutely.’ And then if you talk about, ‘should they get married?’, then suddenly …”

While President in 2010:

 “I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-s-x marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage. But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine.”

In no way was this just a simple evolution of Obama’s views as the media claims, says Chris Weigant in a fascinating Huffington Post piece. He notes that the Obama team were waiting for the right moment to announce the news with the biggest splash possible — and the Romney adviser who recently left after his sexuality was being berated by conservatives was a perfect opportunity. Hence Biden — and Arne Duncan, secretary of the Department of Education — saying they supported gay marriage in recent days, as part of “testing the waters” and preparing for Obama’s announcement. As Weigant explains:

“The media — pretty much all of them — just got ‘played,’ by the Obama campaign. And they don’t even realise it yet. What we just witnessed, for roughly the past four days, was not a ‘breaking story’ or even an ‘evolution’ of any sort. What we just witnessed, capped this morning by President Barack Obama’s statement of support for gay marriage, was nothing more than the introduction of a new (political) product. It was a ‘new and improved’ product rollout — nothing more, nothing less.”

It’s not surprising that Obama is publicly affirming his support, considering how popular gay marraige now is in the polls. “According to surveys included in the PollingReport.com database, an average of 50% of American adults support same-s-x marriage rights while 45% oppose it, based on an average of nine surveys conducted in the past year,” reports Nate Silver in the NY Times‘s Five Thirty Eight blog.

He adds: “This is a reversal from earlier periods: support for same-s-x marriage has been increasing, and opposition to it has been decreasing, at a relatively steady rate of perhaps two or three percentage points a year since 2004.”

A recent online survey by Australia’s House Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs found that 64% of respondents said same-sex marriage should be legalised. A Galaxy poll of 786 people in February, commissioned by Australians for Marriage Equality, found that 62% supported same-sex marriage law. But Australia’s Prime Minister isn’t about to echo Obama’s statement, she said this morning.

“I know President Obama has made that statement,” said Julia Gillard.  “I haven’t had the opportunity to view it myself. I’ve seen the reports of it, but no, my view hasn’t changed and when a bill comes to the parliament later this year … I won’t vote for it.”

Peter Fray

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