Obama on gay marriage: from reluctant supporter to cheerleader-in-chief

One year ago Obama had just come out for gay marriage, and now he's a big cheerleader. But in 2011, he took the most important step of his presidency in paving the way for Wednesday's DOMA ruling.

Pete Souza/Reuters
President Obama, aboard Air Force One, congratulates same-sex marriage plaintiffs following the Supreme Court's decision Wednesday, reaching them on their cell phones as they stood outside the Court.

It was barely a year ago that President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage – and only after a big, awkward nudge from Vice President Biden. On Wednesday, following victories for same-sex marriage rights in two Supreme Court cases, Mr. Obama was the lead cheerleader, issuing reactions in rapid succession.   

First, in a quick tweet put out under Obama’s name by his group Organizing for Action, he called the decision striking down a key portion of DOMA – the Defense of Marriage Act – “a historic step forward for #MarriageEquality.”

Then Obama placed two congratulatory calls from Air Force One, en route to Africa. He spoke to Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the DOMA case, then to the plaintiffs and others involved in the challenge to Proposition 8 – the 2008 referendum that banned gay marriage in California. The ruling, which dismissed the appeal on jurisdictional grounds, will allow gay marriages to resume in the state.

“He noted that although the court did not address the constitutionality of Proposition 8, today's ruling is a victory for Kris, Sandy, Paul, and Jeff –these are plaintiffs in Prop 8 – and to all loving, committed couples in the state of California,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One.

And finally, the president put out a formal statement, applauding the DOMA decision.

“This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people,” Obama said. “The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it. We are a people who declared that we are all created equal – and the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."

Obama also proclaimed the DOMA ruling a victory for the children of married same-sex couples, who will now receive the federal benefits that heterosexual married couples receive. And he directed Attorney General Eric Holder to work with other members of his Cabinet “to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its implications for federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly.”

More than two years before Obama stated his support for gay marriage, he and Mr. Holder set out on a path aimed at undermining Section 3 of DOMA, the part that was struck down on Wednesday. In February 2011, Holder took the unusual step of announcing that the Obama administration would no longer defend Section 3 of DOMA in court. Today, gay-rights advocates credit the Obama administration for helping set the stage for Wednesday’s ruling.

“I think the administration really helped lead the way,” says Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal in New York. “The Supreme Court takes the position of the Department of Justice – the lawyers for our government – very seriously, and certainly I think has a sense, at least in the background, of how public opinion is tilting on an issue.” 

But defenders of traditional marriage don’t see the Obama administration’s advocacy as having any impact on key justices, particularly the “swing” justice on the DOMA ruling, Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion.

“I don’t think Kennedy needs influencing,” says Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values.

“He has signaled a world view that’s deeply disappointing to the people who thought he’d be a useful vote on the court.”

To some gay-rights activists, Obama has not gone far enough in supporting their cause. They have put him under intense pressure of late to use his executive authority to bar federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation. First lady Michelle Obama was heckled on the issue recently by a gay-rights activist upset that the president hadn’t moved quickly enough to fulfill that promise.

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