Barack Obama Continues To Vote “Present” On Same-Sex Marriage

Not exactly an example of moral leadership.

During yesterday’s press conference, the President’s odd kabuki dance around the issue of same-sex marriage was on full display:

After months of saying his position on same-sex marriage is “evolving,” President Obama traded that language on Wednesday for comments that stopped just short of endorsing the notion that gay people have the right to marry.

But if his personal evolution is complete, Mr. Obama, who has previously opposed same-sex marriage, is not saying so.

“I think what you’re seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they’ve got to be treated like every other American,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference. “And I think that principle will win out.”

The president went on: “I think we’re moving in a direction of greater equality and — and I think that’s a good thing.”

Mr. Obama used those same words — “a good thing” — to describe the debate that led to last week’s passage of a law making same-sex marriage legal in New York.

But when asked if he personally supported such marriages, the president demurred. “I’m not going to make news on that today,” he said.

Mr. Obama later held a Gay Pride reception at the White House on Wednesday evening, where he did not address the issue directly. Dan Savage, a columnist who arrived with his husband, wore a button that said “evolve already.”

You can see a great example of just how much Obama is trying to play Artful Dodger on this issue in this clip from yesterday:

Dana Milbank is as frustrated as Dan Savage quite obviously was:

At the core of Obama’s stance is a logical inconsistency: He believes gay Americans should be fully equal under the law, but by opposing gay marriage he supports a system that denies same-sex couples some 1,300 federal rights and benefits that married couples receive. The civil unions Obama favors as an alternative have little meaning in federal law.

Few questioned Obama’s (or Clinton’s) civil-union dodge during the 2008 presidential campaign, because gay marriage was politically impossible in most parts of the country. But the vote by the New York legislature — including the Republican-controlled Senate — and national polling have shown that marriage equality, though still politically difficult, is within reach.

For Obama, this is less about the issue than about leadership. Even if he backed gay marriage, it wouldn’t become legal without Congress rewriting the federal definition of marriage, which currently demands “a legal union between one man and one woman.” But if Obama really believes, as he says, that a class of Americans is suffering unconstitutional discrimination, you’d think he would take a stand as a matter of principle. Instead, to borrow a phrase one of his advisers applied to the administration’s Libya policy, the president is once again “leading from behind.”

In a piece written before the press conference, Andrew Sullivan defends the President against charges that he’s been too timid on this issue:

Some now want this president to be Andrew Cuomo, a heroically gifted advocate of marriage equality who used all his skills to make it the law in his state. But the truth is that a governor is integral to this issue in a way a president can never be. Civil marriage has always been a state matter in the US. That tradition goes all the way back; it was how the country managed to have a patchwork of varying laws on miscegenation for a century before Loving vs Virginia. The attack on this legal regime was made by Republicans who violated every conservative principle in the book when they passed DOMA, and seized federal control over the subject by refusing for the first time ever not to recognize possible legal civil marriages in a state like Hawaii or Massachusetts. Defending this tradition is not, as some would have it, a kind of de facto nod to racial segregation; it is a defense of the norm in US history. And by defending that norm, the Obama administration has a much stronger and more coherent case in knocking down DOMA than if it had echoed Clinton in declaring that the feds could dictate a national marriage strategy.

Sullivan’s point is well-take. He also points out that this President also ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, ended the travel ban on  people who are HIV positive and, announced that his Administration would not defend DOMA’s Section Three because they believed it to be unconstitutional.  So the argument that he has abandoned a constituency that was behind him from the start really doesn’t hold water. Nonetheless, it’s the President who has brought this on himself. He’s said that his position on same-sex marriage is “evolving,” as if this is some kind of science experiment. More recently, though, he’s started using rhetoric about equality that makes you think that the next thing that will come out of his mouth will be “…..and that’s why I fully support the right of gays and lesbians to legally marry the person of their choice.” Instead, you get the dodging.

Is it pure political cyncism, or is it another example of his inability to be a leader?

I’m not sure I know the answer to that question, but it’s pretty clear that it’s phony. At this point, I don’t think anyone seriously doubts that, in his heart of hearts, Barack Obama supports same-sex marriage, but doesn’t want to say so publicly. That doesn’t strike me as the way to act regarding an issue you believe has to do with freedom and equality, values that the President continually refer to in his speeches. What it strikes me as being, though, is plain and simple cowardice.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. EddieInCA says:

    Doug –

    And the people you support are doing everything in their power to stop gay-marriage.

    So which is worse? The guy who won’t admit it publicly, but supports gay marriage and works behind the scenes to make it happen, or the people in the party whom you support who work tirelessly to keep gay-marriage from happening?

    I’ll take the first one over the second one every freaking time.

    You’re bashing Obama for not taking a strong stand, while at the same time you support a party, (and candidates), that does everything in it’s power, on a state and national level, to deny gay marriage – NYC GOP notwithstanding.

    How do you reconcile those two positions in your own brain?

  2. Civil Unions with all legal rights of marriage I can see. But as to redefining the words marriage, husband and wife I’m reminded of the line from Alice in Wonderland

    ‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
    ‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

  3. Graham says:


    You’re bashing Obama for not taking a strong stand, while at the same time you support a party, (and candidates), that does everything in it’s power, on a state and national level, to deny gay marriage – NYC GOP notwithstanding.

    There is no inherent contradiction there. One could disagree with Obama’s refusal to publicly stand up for his principles even if one disagreed with said principles.

    I’m pretty sure Doug does not disagree with that principle, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t see a GOP candidate as the lesser of two evils.

    Can you not find a single flaw in your chosen party’s platform, anywhere? I’d find that hard to believe, and I’d find your opinion on matters of partisan politics difficult to take seriously if you could claim that with a straight face.

  4. mattb says:

    At what point do we acknowledge political pragmatics? Rove and Mehlmen used “gay marriage” was used as a wedge issue in both 2004 to motivate the base via statewide referendums. Something similar was tried in California in 2008 with prop 9.

    Attempts are already being made for a similar referendum in 2012 for Minnesota (

    At this point, coming out for Gay Marriage isn’t going to help Obama — though I wouldn’t be the least surprised if that “big and expected” announcement comes once the 2012 campaign hits full swing.

    As for Cuomo, he’s not running for president in 2012 — he’s looking at 2016. That, plus his relatively high approval ratings in New York, gives him the cover to be so bold.

  5. ponce says:

    I believe this is known as a concern troll post.

  6. Tano says:

    I think it is evidence of him being a very wise leader. It is not always just about him – about putting himself out there as the visible leader. If you are really interested in the issue (as per the old phrase that Reagan liked to quote – “its amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t worry about who gets the credit”) – then you begin to think strategically – what exactly is the impact of a Presidential declaration on this issue, and when is the best moment to make that impact.

    As things are proceeding now, you really do not need Barack Obama out there pushing this issue. The country is evolving on this issue rather relentlessly. If anything, having Obama front and center as the leader of the marriage effort (as he would automatically become if he declared support) would probably have a negative effect. It would give a rallying focus for all the Obama haters to apply that hatred to the issue.

    To the extent that Obama maintains some ambivalence toward marriage, he is allowing the broad middle of America, that are also not hostile but not enthusiastic, to identify with him – to feel that he understands their reluctance. He seems to be portraying his own reluctance in a context in which eventual acceptance is just over the horizon. In that way he is probably doing a great deal to help lead the broad middle toward eventual acceptance, before too long.

    Its leading from the middle of the pack, and in this case, it is probably the most effective tactic I think it praiseworthy that he adopts the leadership style that is most effective given the situation at hand, rather than obsessing over the appearance of Churchillian leadership on every issue, just to keep the snarky pundits at bay.

  7. EddieInCA says:

    Graham –

    You write:

    Can you not find a single flaw in your chosen party’s platform, anywhere? I’d find that hard to believe, and I’d find your opinion on matters of partisan politics difficult to take seriously if you could claim that with a straight face.

    Fascinating… What makes you think I have a “chosen party?” I’ve been a registered independent for 30+ years. I vote GOP, Dems, and 3rd Party, as necessary based on the candidate who most closest represents my views.

    It’s our own Mr. Mataconis who, on more than one occasion, has stated that he doesn’t vote for Dems, can’t ever see himself voting for Dems, and that Dems are almost always worse. It is to that point that I made my point.

    Perhaps you should ask your question of him.

    Lastly, the next time I value your opinion of me will be the first.

    Enjoy the day.

  8. hey norm says:

    The minute Obama starts pushing this issue it’s over…no more progress will be made. None. Those Republicans in New York never would have allowed themselves to be seen as siding with Obama. Without his name being attached they were able to vote their conscience and not the party line.
    More progress has been made under what you call “lack of leadership” than any time in history.
    It’s the same stupid argument about the middle east. If America is seen as being behind these uprisings in Egypt and Iran they are dead in the water from the beginning.
    Give this lack of leadership thing a rest.

  9. David M says:

    Like Norm, I’m more than willing to give Obama a pass for this. Until the GOP publicly says they were wrong to reflexively oppose anything Obama proposes, passes a compromise on the debt ceiling and starts working productively to improve the PPACA rather than trying to repeal it, there’s no sense in Obama being involved in this issue. Besides, I’m not sure it would do any good for him to involve himself in the issue currently, as all the action is at the state rather than federal level.

  10. Graham says:

    @EddieInCA: I was actually attempting to highlight that blind adherence to the party line is an obviously ridiculous position for an intelligent person to take. It sounds like we’re in agreement on that point. I assumed you were not a fanatical devotee of party dogma, and the question was meant rhetorically. I apologize for any offense.

  11. MBunge says:

    I have to echo what others have said. I’m not sure there’s anything that better symbolizes the degenerate state of our politics that Barack Obama getting more flack for simply not endorsing gay marriage than Karl Rove has ever gotten over running a national campaign based on demonizing gay marriage.


  12. michael reynolds says:

    I agree with all who’ve pointed to GOP hypocrisy.

    And yet, Obama is being a wimp on this.

  13. Steve Verdon says:

    It’s our own Mr. Mataconis who, on more than one occasion, has stated that he doesn’t vote for Dems, can’t ever see himself voting for Dems, and that Dems are almost always worse. It is to that point that I made my point.

    Which is why he voted for Barack Obama in the VA primary.

  14. Barb Hartwell says:

    Why should this be an issue, if two people love eachother they should be able to marry. Some may not like it, but so what? We need except the fact gay people should have the same rights as straight people period. There are much more important things to worry about.

  15. ratufa says:

    Before people call Obama a “wimp” or “coward” in this thread they should consider whether it would help or hurt the cause of gay marriage if Obama took a public stand in favor of it.

    In general, I don’t think it would allay the fears of a state politician worried about the political consequences of voting for gay marriage if Obama’s name was associated with the issue. Other people have pointed this out in more detail.

  16. Joe R. says:

    This has been the Democratic strategy for a while now–Gay Rights Tomorrow. It has to be done when it’s politically convenient, wink wink nudge nudge, and in the meantime, keep voting for us.

    I’ve long urged all my friends who are serious about gay rights to vote Libertarian.

  17. Tano says:

    @Joe R.:

    I’ve long urged all my friends who are serious about gay rights to vote Libertarian

    Well that seems pretty dumb. How can you deny that the Dems have delivered for the gay community? DADT repeal??? DOMA abandonment? Constant and vociferous opposition to the anti-gay agenda of the Republican base?

    What the HELL would voting libertarian achieve other than marginally increasing the likelihood that a truly anti-gay candidate would squeak through in that particular election?
    I mean really …..

  18. teapartydoc says:

    This is all really an argument over government licensing and whether or not a government based on the proposition that all men (both wer-men and wif-men) are created equal has any business in issuing a license that singles (or doubles) out some of them for special recognition or treatment. I think it does not.

    If we are going to argue that since the current state of affairs is one that confers special rank on some, but not others, then a more appropriate response would be to make this license unrestricted and universal. We all know where that leads, and how happy many underground Mormons and Nambla members and polyamorous groups would be in the ensuing chaos.

    Which leads us to the only real answer, the one Milton Friedman kept trying to convince people of for the last forty years of his life, and no one would listen: NO MORE GOVERNMENT LICENSING.

  19. Willy says:

    I am 99% sure it is political strategy on Obama’s part. Let’s be frank: he could actually lose a significant chunk of voters, especially black voters, if he came out in favor of gay marriage.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    Ahh, I figured someone would trot out the same, tired argument that we often hear from opponents of SSM, that if we allow that, it will lead to all kinds of strange situations being legalized, like polygamy, man-boy relationships, etc…how disappointing that bestiality wasn’t also mentioned so as to get the full, scary effect…and this idea that if we allow SSM, we should just get the government out of the marriage business completely sounds like the argument of a petulant child who doesn’t like the changes in the rules of a game he is playing and decides to take his toys and go home…

  21. datechguy says:

    Forgetting the nonsense that is “Gay” Marriage the actual point is this.

    If this was going on with a single issue you might consider it a strategic move, (such as Scott Brown asking Sarah Palin not to make a big deal about supporting him) but President Obama has done this again and again and again.

    If you are a single issue gay marriage supporter then you might consider it strategic that he won’t commit, but if you are thinking on a larger scale it’s one of the reasons why this presidency has been very harmful for the country. It’s one thing to consider it the “bright side” of a weak leader in one case but to complement the president suggesting it’s a sign he’s great is simply self delusion

  22. Duracomm says:

    The entertainment value of watching dedicated George Bush haters relentlessly supporting obama and the democrats George Bush’s third term is priceless.

    It shows that for too many people civil liberties exist solely to provide a partisan club to beat republicans with.

    These same folks will at best studiously ignore and at worst happily and vociferously defend numerous government abuses of civil liberties if democrats are in power.

    Obama and the democrats will continue to attack civil liberties because they realize that their supporters really don’t care if they do.

    Obama Administration Gives Green Light for Raids on Medical Marijuana Distributors

    Now the Justice Department has issued a new memo to federal prosecutors emphasizing that it has no intention of discouraging federal medical marijuana prosecutions, regardless of state law

  23. Joe R. says:

    Well that seems pretty dumb. How can you deny that the Dems have delivered for the gay community? DADT repeal??? DOMA abandonment?

    Who passed DOMA and DADT in the first place? Hint: his name started with a B and ended with ill Clinton.

    EDIT: And in 2004, John Kerry insisted that he had the exact same position on gay marriage as George Bush. The video’s on YouTube.

  24. Joe R. says:

    And keep in mind that after 2009, the Democrats had the votes to repeal DOMA if they chose. They didn’t choose.