President Barack Obama declared his belief that “same-sex couples should be able to get married” Wednesday, potentially elevating the polarizing issue of gay marriage to a new level for the 2012 election.
Obama’s previous position was support for civil unions but opposition to same-sex marriage. During the 2008 campaign he said that he believed marriage was between a man and a woman. But in recent months, Obama said his views on gay marriage were “evolving.”
The announcement was the first by a sitting president, and Republican challenger Mitt Romney swiftly disagreed with it. “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said while campaigning in Oklahoma.
Gay rights advocates cheered Obama’s declaration, which they had long urged him to make.
“I think it shows what a bold leader he is,” said Steve Hildebrand, an openly gay Sioux Falls-based political strategist who helped manage Obama’s 2008 campaign. “I think he understands the country in a global way that all people should be included in having constitutional rights to marry.”
Obama revealed his decision after a series of events that made clear the political ground was shifting. In an interview with ABC in which he blended the personal and the presidential, Obama said “it wouldn’t dawn” on his daughters, Sasha and Malia, that some of their friends’ parents would be treated differently than others. He said he also thought of aides “who are in incredibly committed monogamous same-sex relationships who are raising kids together.”
Social conservatives condemned the move.
“Marriage is a fundamental bedrock of our society,” said Dale Bartscher, executive director of the Rapid City-based Family Heritage Alliance. “Marriage has been defined through history as that relationship and a union between a man and a woman who make a permanent, exclusive commitment to each other, the type that is naturally or inherently fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together… President Obama’s lack of respect for the definition of marriage is historically unbelievable.”
The president said he was taking a personal position. Aides said the president’s shift would have no impact on current policies, and he continues to believe that marriage is an issue best decided by states.
“I have hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” Obama said in the interview. He added, “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people the word ‘marriage’ was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth.”
Now, he said, “it is important for me personally to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
South Dakota’s Congressional delegation gave a muted response to Obama’s announcement.
Asked for a comment, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., released a statement opposing Obama’s new position.
“I disagree with the President and continue to believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” Noem said.
Senators Tim Johnson and John Thune were even more cautious.
A spokesman for Thune simply replied by email that the South Dakota Republican’s “position on this issue has not changed.”
Thune has opposed same-sex marriage. In 2006, he released a statement saying that “the fabric of our society is under attack by anti-family activists with a narrow agenda aimed at dissolving the definition of marriage that has existed since the birth of civilization.”
Johnson released a statement saying same-sex marriage wasn’t an issue for Congress.
“Marriage law is a state issue,” Johnson said in the statement. “It is up to each state to decide what its marriage laws are.”
Bartscher predicted Obama’s announcement would galvanize social conservatives to come to the polls and defeat the president.
“I think it is a rallying cry to support the sacred institution of marriage,” Bartscher said.
Don Frankenfeld, a Rapid City economist who is one of the founders of the pro-gay rights group Equality South Dakota, disagreed.
“If you look at raw political dynamic, it’s likely that most of those people who would be happy with the decision are already supporters of Obama, and more importantly, people who would be unhappy with the decision weren’t going to vote for the guy anyway,” Frankenfeld said.
Senior administration officials said Obama came to the conclusion that gay couples should have the right to legally marry earlier this year and had planned to make his views known publicly before the Democratic National Convention in early September.
Hildebrand said he has had discussions with Obama about same-sex marriage since the 2008 election.
“I believe it’s what’s been in his heart for many years,” Hildebrand said of Wednesday’s announcement.
As recently as eight years ago, conservatives in several states maneuvered successfully to place questions relating to gay marriage on the ballot as a way of boosting turnout for President George W. Bush’s re-election.
Now, nationwide polling suggests increasing acceptance of gay marriage. In a national survey released earlier this month, Gallup reported 50 percent of those polled said it should be legal, and 48 percent were opposed. Democrats favored by a margin of roughly 2-1, while Republicans opposed it by an even bigger margin. Among independents, 57 percent expressed support, and 40 percent were opposed.
Frankenfeld said those numbers showed a future where “most states… will allow gay marriage.”
“The facts are, 30 states have constitutional amendments protecting marriage,” Bartscher said. “That’s where the people vote. That’s where the people speak. (Obama’s) on the wrong side of this issue.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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