ABC broke into its daytime lineup May 9, 2012, to announce a historic shift: the president of the United States declaring his personal support for gay marriage.
"I've been going through an evolution on this issue," President Barack Obama told ABC News.
While the president has consistently supported civil rights for gay couples — peppering his comments with specifics such as hospital visitation, transfer of property and Social Security benefits — his discussion of marriage has differed. He’s called same-sex marriage unstrategic, against his religious beliefs, and something that should be in the hands of churches rather than government.
In 2008, he said: "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage."
On Wednesday, by contrast, he said: "I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."
PolitiFact’s Flip-O-Meter rates politicians' consistency on particular topics from No Flip to Full Flop. The meter is not intended to pass judgment on their decisions to change their minds. It’s just gauging whether they did.
How does the president’s "evolution" on marriage rate?
POLITICO and others have tracked Obama’s statements on same-sex marriage since 1996. Here’s our recap.
Obama was in favor of same-sex marriage before he was against it — and before he was for it again.
In 1996, as he ran for Illinois state Senate, Chicago’s Outlines gay newspaper asked candidates to fill out a questionnaire. Tracy Baim, the co-founder and publisher of Outlines, dug up a copy of the questionnaire in 2009, cataloging the president-elect’s shift.
He had written on the 1996 questionnaire, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."
Just two years later, on another Outlines questionnaire, Obama wasn’t so sure. Did he favor legalizing same-sex marriage? "Undecided." Would he support a bill to repeal Illinois legislation prohibiting same-sex marriage? "Undecided." Would he co-sponsor it? "Undecided."
Later years offered greater clarity — and a shift from 1996. Civil unions? Yes. Gay marriage? No.
As Obama sought a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, he told the Windy City Times, "I am a fierce supporter of domestic-partnership and civil-union laws. I am not a supporter of gay marriage as it has been thrown about, primarily just as a strategic issue. I think that marriage, in the minds of a lot of voters, has a religious connotation. ..."
He described his hesitation to endorse same-sex marriage as strategic and political.
"What I'm saying is that strategically, I think we can get civil unions passed. … I think that to the extent that we can get the rights, I'm less concerned about the name. … Republicans are going to use a particular language that has all sorts of connotations in the broader culture as a wedge issue, to prevent us moving forward, in securing those rights, then I don't want to play their game."
When he wrote his 2006 memoir, The Audacity of Hope, he offered a religious explanation for his definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. But he left the door open for yet another shift.
"I believe that American society can choose to carve out a special place for the union of a man and a woman as the unit of child rearing most common to every culture. …" he said. "(But) it is my obligation not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society, but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights. I must admit that I may have been infected with society's prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God; that Jesus' call to love one another might demand a different conclusion; and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history."
He said his doubts didn't make him a bad Christian — but human, limited in his understanding of God’s purpose and therefore "prone to sin."
"When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must continually be open to new revelations — whether they come from a lesbian friend or a doctor opposed to abortion."
Still, in a 2007 Democratic primary debate sponsored by a gay rights group and a gay-oriented cable TV channel, he spoke instead about his support for civil unions with "all the benefits that are available for a legally sanctioned marriage" — but not for legal recognition of "marriage" between same-sex couples. It should be up to religious denominations to determine whether they wanted to recognize that as marriage or not, he said.
In August 2008, he told Southern California megachurch Pastor Rick Warren his definition of marriage: "I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God's in the mix."
He later added: "I am not somebody who promotes same-sex marriage, but I do believe in civil unions."
In November 2008, he said much the same thing to a rather different audience: MTV.
"I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage."
By October 2010, almost two years into his presidency, he acknowledged his views were evolving. But he wasn’t prepared to reverse himself, he said.
He told a group of liberal bloggers, "I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage. But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine."
He offered an explanation that would presage his 2012 shift: "I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships. I have staff members who are in committed, monogamous relationships, who are raising children, who are wonderful parents. And I care about them deeply. And so while I’m not prepared to reverse myself here, sitting in the Roosevelt Room at 3:30 in the afternoon, I think it’s fair to say that it’s something that I think a lot about. That’s probably the best you’ll do out of me today."
A year and a half later, he announced the result of that wrestling and thinking.
Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts asked him on Wednesday, "Mr. President, are you still opposed to same-sex marriage?"
Well, you know, I have to tell you, as I've said, I've been going through an evolution on this issue. I've always been adamant that — gay and lesbian — Americans should be treated fairly and equally. And that's why in addition to everything we've done in this administration, rolling back Don't Ask, Don't Tell — so that, you know, outstanding Americans can serve our country. Whether it's no longer defending the Defense Against Marriage Act, which tried to federalize what has historically been state law.
I've stood on the side of broader equality for the LGBT community. And I had hesitated on gay marriage — in part, because I thought civil unions would be sufficient. That that was something that would give people hospital visitation rights and other elements that we take for granted. And I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, you know, the word marriage was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs, and so forth.
But I have to tell you that over the course of several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors. When I think about members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together. When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet, feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is gone, because they're not able to commit themselves in a marriage.
At a certain point, I've just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.
Obama, a consistent supporter of civil rights for gay couples, nevertheless said as early as 2004 and through 2008 that he didn’t support same-sex marriage. He had written that he believed "that American society can choose to carve out a special place for the union of a man and a woman." In 2010, he said he wasn’t prepared to reverse himself. This week, the president said he thinks same-sex couples should be able to get married. On the Flip-O-Meter, he earns a Full Flop.