The New Republic has provided a helpful timeline chronicling his gradual move away from this position. He eventually embraced "civil unions," the term for policies that grant gay couples at least some of the benefits that married couples receive without calling the unions "marriages." Explaining his stance in 2004, he framed it as a strategic choice: "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." But in 2008 he stated, "I believe that marriage is between a man and woman and I am not in favor of gay marriage," though he opposed the Prop 8 ban on gay marriage, calling it "unnecessary."
I find it hard to believe he was for gay marriage in '96 and later sincerely changed his mind. That might happen to someone who underwent a religious conversion and became more socially conservative. But Obama's conversion happened in the '80s, and it involved the UCC, one of the more gay-friendly denominations of American Christianity. (The UCC officially endorsed gay marriage in 2005.) The likelier explanation is that he calculated that his original position would hamper his political ambitions.
I'm not sure he was wrong. Up to now, no serious presidential contender has openly supported gay marriage, not even the supposedly progressive Howard Dean. In the 2008 election, Obama was already fighting claims that he was outside the mainstream. Open support could have easily sunk his candidacy before it got off the ground, getting him written off as another Kucinich-type flake. But now, with more and more states legalizing the practice, and with polls showing increasing support for it among the public at large, Obama probably fears being on the wrong side of history at a pivotal moment.
Other Democrats face a similar dilemma. Joe Biden recently agreed with Obama on having "evolving" views on the topic (how convenient!) and suggested gay marriage was inevitable. That's about as close to an endorsement as I ever would have imagined. But it makes sense given his history. During the 2008 vice presidential debate, he said, "We do support making sure that committed couples in a same-sex marriage are guaranteed the same constitutional benefits as it relates to their property rights, their rights of visitation, their rights to insurance, their rights of ownership as heterosexual couples do." But when the moderator Gwen Ifill asked him directly "Do you support gay marriage?" he replied, "No. [Neither] Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage," but he added that people of all faiths have the right to define the relationships as they please.
Presumably, Biden's statement that he supports benefits for "couples in a same-sex marriage" was a slip of the tongue, and he meant to say simply "same-sex couples." But it's a revealing slip, highlighting the semantic nature of the issue. Throughout the last decade, the phrase "civil unions" has provided cover for politicians who don't want to appear too radical but who also don't want to seem draconian in denying couples things like visitation rights. (SNL's version of the debate has Biden saying he would "absolutely not" support same-sex marriage, but that "they should be allowed to visit one another in the hospital, and in a lot of ways that's just as good if not better.") This balancing act has been especially painful to watch in the case of Dick Cheney, whose views have apparently been affected by his having a lesbian daughter. He declined to endorse Bush's Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004, but he avoided saying anything more about his personal views than that the matter should be left to the states and that "Freedom means freedom for everybody."
All these capitulations have an unfortunate side effect: they make it easy for people to overlook the difference between pols who nominally oppose gay marriage and pols who crusade against it. Just this year, in response to the uproar over his anti-gay remarks, New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino took a more conciliatory tone, pointing out that "I have the same position on [the marriage] issue as President Barrack [sic] Obama." But somehow I have trouble imagining Obama ever expressing his position the way Paladino did earlier:
If you elect me as your next governor, you can depend on me to protect and defend your family from those who seek to tear down our values and bankrupt our citizens. And yes, I will veto all legislation that mocks our sacred institution of marriage and family. I will veto any gay marriage or civil union bill that comes to my desk. Yes I'm angry. Real angry at the way our politically correct elites are mistreating our innocent children, and I want to protect them and give them a real future in America, the greatest country on God's green Earth.The fact is, the kind of fiery talk that depicts gay marriage as a threat to our civilization comes mostly from Republicans. Democrats who claim to oppose gay marriage rarely explain their position clearly, much less engage in sky-is-falling rhetoric. Their strategy is basically one of damage control, trying to expand the practical rights of gay people while avoiding turning off too many social conservatives. But as the veil slips, it'll be interesting to watch who comes out on what side in the end.