"Today, we can say in no uncertain terms that we’ve made our union a little more perfect," President Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden on June 26, 2015, the morning same-sex marriages were legalized nationwide.
The decision came through a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling, not legislation. But, according to Out Magazine, the moment could not have arrived without Mr. Obama's leadership on gay rights. The President's portrait appears on the cover of the Out100 2015 issue this month, where he is honored as Out's "Ally of the Year," making him the first sitting president to grace an LGBT magazine cover.
Such milestones – a magazine cover, let alone helping to make gay marriage a reality in all 50 states – seemed far from certain seven years ago, when Americans elected a first-term senator from Illinois better known for a powerful speech on race than for progressive views on LGBT issues.
Piece by piece, the administration's first term strengthened gay Americans' rights, from the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 to repealing the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy in 2010.
But it wasn't until 2012, during a heated reelection campaign, that the President told ABC's Robin Roberts that "it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," after years of publicly defining marriage as a man and a woman. Even then, he left gay marriage decisions to the states.
"President Obama’s evolution on marriage equality has been something to behold," Out editor in chief Aaron Hicklin reflects in a piece accompanying the President's interview:
Many share credit for what has transpired, but there’s no question that without the active engagement of the 44th president of the United States, who has made securing the rights of LGBT Americans a fundamental part of his legacy, we’d still be working to fulfill that dream. On this issue, among many others, he is truly a great American.
In 2001, 35 percent of Americans supported gay marriage, while 57 percent opposed. Today, those numbers have flip-flopped: 55 percent are in favor, and 39 percent against. Pew surveys reveal 2011 as the moment when public opinion shifted in support of same-sex couples' right to marry.
President Obama and his wife, Michelle, may be representative of their generations: They were born at the tail end of the Baby Boom. The support of Baby Boomers for gay marriage grew from 36 percent to 45 percent over the course of Obama's two presidencies. Support is highest among Millennials, 70 percent of whom believe it should be legal.
"One of the reasons I got involved in politics was to help deliver on our promise that we’re all created equal, and that no one should be excluded from the American dream just because of who they are," Obama tells Mr. Hicklin. "That’s why, in the Senate, I supported repealing DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act]. It’s why, when I ran for president the first time, I publicly asked for the support of the LGBT community, and promised that we could bring about real change for LGBT Americans."
The president's comments echo the theme of his remarks after the Supreme Court ruling this summer, when he told Americans that
Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle that we are all created equal. The project of each generation is to bridge the meaning of those founding words with the realities of changing times – a never-ending quest to ensure those words ring true for every single American.
But equality is a principle that many voters expected Obama to apply to address racial injustice, a responsibility he has at times been accused of shirking, although he now seems poised to build that legacy through criminal justice reform during his last year in office.
"A More Perfect Union," Obama's groundbreaking speech on race after the Jeremiah Wright controversy in 2008, promised to "to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America."
Whether race or LGBT issues, the President's civil rights remarks often repeat a second point: unity.
His own life story "has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one," he told the "A More Perfect Union" audience in Philadelphia, blocks from Independence Hall.
When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, it fell to Justice Anthony Kennedy to write the majority opinion.
"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family," he wrote. "In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were."