Obama's Opposition To Gay Marriage: Genuine Or Political Calculation?

This story has been updated

Yesterday's ruling overturning California's ban on gay marriage and the White House's mixed response revived a question that has long frustrated gay Americans -- why doesn't President Obama support gay marriage?

Soon after the decision by District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, the White House issued a statement condemning Proposition 8 as "divisive and discriminatory" without elaborating further. On Thursday morning, presidential advisor David Axelrod told MSNBC that "the president does oppose same-sex marriage, but he supports equality for gay and lesbian couples, and benefits and other issues, and that has been effectuated in federal agencies under his control."

And certainly, the president has pushed through some major reforms benefitting gay couples such as extending hospital visitation rights for same-sex partners and he has asserted his intention to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He has long expressed his opposition to the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage act, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman and states that no states needs to treat as a marriage any same-sex relationship considered a marriage in another state. But his Department of Justice has defended DOMA in federal courts, arguing that it is appropriate and justified.

When Obama ran for the Illinois State Senate in 1996, he gave statements to a Chicago paper that expressed "unequivocal support for gay marriage."

But since then, and during his later emergence on the national political stage, four words have been missing from his often-stirring rhetoric: "I support gay marriage."

With his opposition to gay marriage and support for civil unions and just about every other aspect of civil rights for gay couples, Obama joins a long line of politicians including almost all of his 2008 Democratic primary competitors such Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John Edwards and Bill Richardson.

Their unwillingness to support gay marriage strikes some observers as an act of political calculation that may clash with their personal tolerance for such unions. The sense is that they fear their open support will rebound politically and inspire a backlash from conservative voters.

Obama even hinted at that possibility in a 2004 interview with Tracy Baim, the publisher of Chicago's largest chain of gay and lesbian publications. He told her that he opposed gay marriage, explaining:

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...

What I'm saying is that strategically, I think we can get civil unions passed. I think we can get SB 101 passed. I think that to the extent that we can get the rights, I'm less concerned about the name. And I think that is my No. 1 priority, is an environment in which the Republicans are going to use a particular language that has all sorts of connotations in the broader culture as a wedge issue, to prevent us moving forward, in securing those rights, then I don't want to play their game.

Some gay marriage proponents are skeptical that Obama personally opposes gay marriage.

"Every thing we know and admire about President Obama makes the claim that he doesn't support the freedom to marry very unconvincing," says Evan Wolfson, the director of the nonpartisan group, Freedom to Marry, adding that the president's public statements are more important than what's in his heart.

Wolfson says Obama is falling short of his promise because of his unwillingness to embrace what his professed support for equality requires, which he says is the equal right of gay couples to marry. Noting the president's opposition to DOMA, he asks: "If he's willing to be against 'against marriage', why can't he just be for marriage?"

Obama's deputy campaign manager during the 2008 race, Steve Hildebrand, who is openly gay, decried the tendency of prominent Democrats to support civil unions rather than gay marriage, calling it a "cop-out. Most politicians aren't going to have the courage to be that strong."

He especially decried the use of religion by Obama and others as a basis to explain their decision not to support gay marriage, blaming the media for not pursuing that line of questioning. "Where have you seen a reporter call him on that? He uses his religion to explain his views but he was a member of the United Church of Christ, which fully supports marriage for same-sex couples."

But in the end, the president's personal views (Hildebrand says Obama has "come close" to supporting gay marriage) don't matter as much as his public policy positions. And he takes issue with the administration's actions, pointing out that the president's public opposition to Prop 8 and DOMA clashes with his Justice Department's defense of DOMA in the courts. "I would love to see the president campaign vigorously against those discrimination attempts but I haven't seen it with any president yet."

Obama and other Democrats' position on the issue stands in contrast to other political figures who made the transition from gay marriage opponents to supporters.

Most prominently, Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA into law, poignantly described in 2009 how he changed his position:

"I realized that I was over 60 years old. I grew up in a different time ... and I was hung up about it," Clinton said. "I decided I was wrong."

Of course, Clinton was long out of office at that point. Similarly, Laura Bush expressed her support for same-sex marriage this past March, over a year after her husband left office. And Cindy McCain joined the campaign to oppose Prop 8 a year after her husband lost the presidential election to Obama.

Certainly, it is possible that these conversions involve real changes of heart and not political calculation. Roberta Achtenberg, trustee of California State University who served on Obama's transition team, says that she is not of the opinion that all leaders expressing some equivocation about gay marriage are doing that out of political expedience."

She says that when President Obama says he opposes gay marriage, she takes him at his word. And she notes the real regional and generational differences on the issue, noting that while Congress is largely against gay marriage, most Democrats in California's legislature support it.

Those politicians who have taken a view on the issue out of political expedience may wind up regretting their decision, says Freedom to Marry's Wolfson: "If they are making a political calculation, it's a very costly one for them and the country because it's not appeasing any of their opponents and it's disappointing and impeding the strength of their base." He adds, "People may respect people they disagree with but not inauthenticity and pure political calculation -- that doesn't ring true... I don't think there's a single voter that Obama would lose because he openly embraced freedom to marry instead of everything but marriage."

The White House did not return a request for comment by the time of publication.