President Obama at a mid-day nationally televised press conference on Wednesday was repeatedly pressed for his views on marriage equality. He spoke out strongly against discrimination based on sexual orientation and detailed many of the things his administration has done to advance equal rights for LBGT people. But he continued to dodge questions about his personal view of same-sex marriage and his support for laws to ensure marriage equality.
“I’m not going to make news on that today,” said President Obama, using a line he has engaged in previous interviews when asked about marriage equality.
Political commentators had been speculating Wednesday morning that a question about marriage equality would be asked, given President Obama’s high-profile speech in New York on the eve of a marriage equality vote there last week. Questions were pressed and, for the first time in the history of presidential press conferences, the gay specific question came up at the beginning of the event, not the end.
“It was the gay marriage press conference,” said MSNBC White House reporter Chuck Todd.
Todd was the second reporter President Obama called on for a question Wednesday and he was the first to ask about marriage. Todd asked the president to comment on the constitutionality of three things – the War Powers Act, the debt limit, and “do you believe marriage is a civil right.”
After Todd asked his question, the president chuckled and noted that Todd had asked a “hodge podge” of a question.
“We’re going to assign you to the Supreme Court,” quipped the president. “I’m not a Supreme Court justice, so I’m not going to put on my constitutional law professor hat here.” He then said he wanted to talk about Libya and did so, concluding that he didn’t think the constitutionality of the War Powers Act was really at issue. He then asked Todd to repeat the other parts of his “three-parter” question and Todd asked about marriage.
The president was clearly prepared.
“This administration under my direction has consistently said we can not discriminate as a country against people on the basis of sexual orientation,” said President Obama. He said his administration has done more in two-and-a-half years than the previous 43 presidents “to uphold that principle.” He rattled off an impressive list of accomplishments—from a new hate crimes law to a law repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, from hospital visitation to “making sure that federal benefits can be provided to same-sex couples” and refusing to defend “the federal government poking its nose” into state laws defining marriage.
He also said the administration “filed briefs before the Supreme Court that say we think any discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender people is subject to heightened scrutiny.”
That latter reference was apparently to a letter the administration sent to Congress, not the Supreme Court, notifying it that the president and attorney general had concluded the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional and that laws infringing upon the rights of LGBT people, like DOMA, should be given the highest level of scrutiny by the courts.
“We’ve made sure that is a central principle of this administration because I think it’s a central principle of America,” said Obama.
President Obama also appeared to misstate that his administration has been “making sure that federal benefits can be provided to same-sex couples.” The administration, contrary to what Republican opponents routinely claim, has continued to enforce DOMA, which prohibits federal benefits to same-sex married couples. But Shin Inouye, a spokesman to LGBT media for the White House, noted that, in 2009, President Obama signed a memorandum “expanding federal benefits for the same-sex partners of Foreign Service and executive branch employees.”
Although Todd did not ask about New York specifically, President Obama spoke about New York’s marriage law, essentially repeating comments made at last week’s fundraiser. He said the state of New York “made a decision to recognize civil marriage, and I think it is important for us to work through these issues.” Each community and each state, he said, will be different.
“What you’re seeing is a profound recognition that gay, lesbian and transgender persons are our brothers and sisters, our children, our friends and co-workers, and they’ve got to be treated like every other American, and I think that principle will win out,” said President Obama. He said he doesn’t think progress in this area will be “perfectly smooth” but that he has learned “a president can’t dictate precisely how this process moves.”
“But we’re moving in the direction of greater equality,” said Obama, “and I think that’s a good thing.”
Laura Meckler of the Wall Street Journal pressed a second question on marriage equality, asking President Obama, “Do you personally now support same-sex marriage?”
“I’m not going to make news on that today,” said Obama, using a line he has engaged in previous interviews when asked about marriage equality. He then answered another question of Meckler’s on a different topic.
Meckler then pressed again, asking about his personal views on same-sex marriage.
“I think this has been asked and answered,” said Obama, “and I’ll keep on giving you the same answer until I give you a different one, and that won’t be today.”
The President was scheduled to make brief remarks Wednesday evening to a group of LGBT guests at a reception observing LGBT Pride Month, in the East Room of the White House.
Joe Sudbay, the openly gay blogger who was able to ask the president about his position on same-sex marriage last October, noted that President Obama re-used a line from his response back then –“I’m not going to make news on that today.”
“That’s what the President said to me last October when he first said he was evolving,” said Sudbay, in a June 29 blog about the press conference. “That was actually news then — and his failure to evolve is still news.”
Reaction was somewhat mixed. Hilary Rosen, a longtime Democratic gay activist and frequent CNN political commentator said, “He wants us to hang in there with him and we will. ”
Richard Socarides, also a longtime Democratic activist and a former White House aide under President Clinton, said his remarks seemed “characteristically non-committal.”
“Nothing more, nothing less than usual,” said Socarides, adding, however, that “it’s hard to believe that anyone who is happy about the outcome in New York would be against us….”
Evan Wolfson, head of the national Freedom to Marry group, said, “It is time for the President to join the majority of Americans whose thinking and understanding, like his, have evolved, and speak up in support of the freedom to marry as a cherished personal commitment and protected constitutional right.”