Politics
12:55 pm
Tue June 21, 2011

Obama's Awkward Dance On Gay Marriage

Originally published on Wed June 22, 2011 1:54 pm

President Obama's self-described evolution on same-sex marriage is not happening fast enough for some gay and lesbian activists. His belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that the legalization of gay marriage should be left up to the states, puts him in an awkward position this week as he heads to New York for a re-election fundraiser with the gay and lesbian community.

On Thursday, the president will visit midtown Manhattan for an event that's expected to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for his campaign coffers. This is the first LGBT fundraiser by a sitting president running for re-election, and it could fall the same day as a vote to legalize same-sex marriage in New York's Republican-led state Senate. That makes this a potentially uncomfortable marriage of money, politics and social change.

"Justice Stares You Right in the Face"

The organizers of Thursday's event had no idea it would coincide with a potentially historic moment in New York, says gay activist David Mixner. "I certainly didn't, and I find it highly amusing," he says.

Amusing because, as Mixner puts it, "You lay out all these plans and try to be as political as you can on this issue, but in the end justice always stares you right in the face."

Mixner, who has been a longtime supporter of Obama, will attend the fundraiser on Thursday. He says the marriage issue will be impossible for the president to overlook. "Dick Cheney's for marriage, Laura Bush is for marriage, [former RNC Chairman] Ken Mehlman's for marriage," Mixner says, "so get with it."

When Obama last weighed in on this issue in December, he said that while he does not support marriage for same-sex couples, his feelings are "constantly evolving."

"At this point what I've said is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have," said Obama.

An Earlier Evolution

It's a little awkward for the White House, because during the 1996 Illinois state Senate campaign, candidate Barack Obama responded to a questionnaire with a letter saying, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."

In an interview last Friday at a conference of progressive bloggers, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer backpedaled. "That questionnaire was actually filled out by someone else, not the president," Pfeiffer said.

Then on Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Pfeiffer was wrong. "Dan was referring to another questionnaire," said Carney in the White House briefing.

In other words, Obama did state in 1996 that he supports gay marriage — a very progressive position for the time. But at least publicly, the president no longer holds that view.

"He's been very clear about his position on gay marriage," said Carney. "He's been very clear about how that position is evolving. I don't have any new announcement to make."

Now the president is headed to New York, where a Republican-led state Senate could pass a gay-marriage bill any day. It sets up a potentially difficult situation for the president, who is asking same-sex couples at the fundraiser to pay as much as $35,800 for the evening.

A History of Support

As the White House is quick to point out, Obama has taken steps to advance gay rights in other areas. Many consider his high-water mark to be the signing ceremony to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."

"You've been asked to carry the added burden of secrecy and isolation, and all the while you've put your lives on the line for the freedoms and privileges of citizenship that are not fully granted to you," he told a tearful audience before signing the bill.

Obama's supporters say he has done more for gay rights than any president in U.S. history. But John Aravosis, who edits the liberal website Americablog, argues that history is the wrong yardstick.

"The point is, how much of a civil rights hero you are is determined by the times you live in," says Aravosis.

"If you defended the rights of African-Americans to swim in your pool in the 1950s, you'd be a huge visionary and we'd give you a huge attaboy for that," Aravosis says. By 1970, the same views would hardly be noteworthy even though they would be ahead of every previous generation.

Indeed, today many national polls show that more than half of Americans support same-sex marriage. That puts Obama among a minority of Americans on the issue, and a small minority of Democrats.

Still, no one expects this difference of opinion to sour the mood at Thursday's fundraiser. The singer Audra McDonald is performing. The actor Neil Patrick Harris is the emcee. As activist Mixner says, this is a gala. "Do not expect this to be a serious evening of policy."

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Transcript

SIEGEL: President Obama is going to New York this week for a fundraiser hosted by leaders of the gay and lesbian community. By the time he arrives, New York may well have become the latest state to legalize same-sex marriage. But Mr. Obama does not support marriage for same-sex couples.

And as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, that makes Thursday's event an awkward marriage of money and politics.

ARI SHAPIRO: David Mixner is a gay activist who is also a longtime supporter and occasional critic of President Obama. He said this week's fundraiser in New York was in the works long before organizers realized it might fall the same week as a New York State Senate vote on same-sex marriage.

Mr. DAVID MIXNER: Oh, I don't think they had any idea. I certainly didn't and I find it highly amusing.

SHAPIRO: Why amusing?

Mr. MIXNER: Well, because, you know, you lay all these plans and you try to be as political as you can on this issue. But in the end, justice always stares you right in the eyes in one way or another, doesn't it?

SHAPIRO: President Obama believes the issue should be left to the states. He last weighed in on it in December. He said while he personally does not support same-sex marriage, his feelings are constantly evolving.

President BARACK OBAMA: At this point, what I've said is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have.

SHAPIRO: It's a little awkward for the White House because during the 1996 Illinois State Senate campaign, candidate Barack Obama responded to a questionnaire with a letter, saying: I favor legalizing same-sex marriages.

Last week, the White House backpedaled. Here's Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer.

Mr. DAN PFEIFFER (Communications Director, White House): That questionnaire was actually filled out by someone else, not the president.

SHAPIRO: Then yesterday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Pfeiffer was wrong.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (Press Secretary, White House): Dan was referring to another questionnaire.

SHAPIRO: In other words, Barack Obama did state in 1996 that he supports gay marriage, a very progressive position for the time. But today, at least publicly, the president no longer holds that view.

Mr. CARNEY: He's been very clear about his position on gay marriage. He's been very clear about how that position is evolving. I don't have any new announcement to make.

SHAPIRO: So now the president is going to New York, where a Republican-led state senate could pass a gay marriage bill this week. Same-sex couples at Thursday's fundraiser are paying as much as $35,000 to spend an evening with the president, who believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

As the White House is quick to point out, Mr. Obama has taken steps to advance gay rights in other areas. Many consider his high water mark to be the signing ceremony to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell.

President OBAMA: For a long time, your service has demanded a particular kind of sacrifice. You've been asked to carry the added burden of secrecy and isolation. And all the while, you've put your lives on the line for the freedoms and privileges of citizenship that are not fully granted to you.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Obama's supporters say he has done more for gay rights than any president in U.S. history.

But John Aravosis, who edits the liberal website Americablog, argues that history is the wrong yardstick.

Mr. JOHN ARAVOSIS (Editor, Americablog): The point is, how much of a civil rights hero you are is determined by the times you live in and how pro or anti people are to those civil rights.

SHAPIRO: In other words, he says, a person who supported interracial marriage and integrated swimming pools in 1950 would have been a civil rights hero. By 1970, they would hardly be noteworthy even though they would be ahead of every previous generation.

And, indeed, today many national polls have shown that more than half of Americans support same-sex marriage. That puts president Obama among a minority of Americans on the issue and a small minority of Democrats.

Still, no one expects this difference of opinion to publicly sour the mood at Thursday's fundraiser. The singer Audra McDonald is performing. The actor Neil Patrick Harris is the emcee. As activist David Mixner says, this is a gala, not a conference on the issues.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.