President Obama discusses his evolving thinking on civil unions and civil marriages, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the difference between state solutions and a federal act, religious liberty, the Black church, college Republicans and gay issues, the Defense Against Marriage Act, and his Christian faith. I highly recommend reading the transcript to get the full texture and context of the President’s comments.
Transcript: Robin Roberts ABC News Interview With President Obama (9 May 2012)
ROBIN ROBERTS: Good to see you, as always–
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good to see you, Robin.
ROBIN ROBERTS: Mr. President. Thank you for this opportunity to talk to you about– various issues. And it’s been quite a week and it’s only Wednesday. (LAUGH)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That’s typical of my week.
ROBIN ROBERTS: I’m sure it is. One of the hot button issues because of things that have been said by members of your administration, same-sex marriage. In fact, your press secretary yesterday said he would leave it to you to discuss your personal views on that. So Mr. President, are you still opposed to same-sex marriage?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well– you know, I have to tell you, as I’ve said, I’ve– 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 is historically been state law.
I’ve stood on the side of broader equality for– the L.G.B.T. 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– 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. Now– I have to tell you that part of my hesitation on this has also been I didn’t want to nationalize the issue. There’s a tendency when I weigh in to think suddenly it becomes political and it becomes polarized.
And what you’re seeing is, I think, states working through this issue– in fits and starts, all across the country. Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times. And I think that’s a healthy process and a healthy debate. And I continue to believe that this is an issue that is gonna be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what’s recognized as a marriage.
ROBIN ROBERTS: Well, Mr. President, it’s– it’s not being worked out on the state level. We saw that Tuesday in North Carolina, the 30th state to announce its ban on gay marriage.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well– well– well, what I’m saying is is that different states are coming to different conclusions. But this debate is taking place– at a local level. And I think the whole country is evolving and changing. And– you know, one of the things that I’d like to see is– that a conversation continue in a respectful way.
I think it’s important to recognize that– folks– who– feel very strongly that marriage should be defined narrowly as– between a man and a woman– many of them are not coming at it from a mean-spirited perspective. They’re coming at it because they care about families. And– they– they have a different understanding, in terms of– you know, what the word “marriage” should mean. And I– a bunch of ’em are friends of mine– you know, pastors and– you know, people who– I deeply respect.
ROBIN ROBERTS: Especially in the Black community.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely.
ROBIN ROBERTS: And it’s very– a difficult conversation to have.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely. But– but I think it’s important for me– to say to them that as much as I respect ’em, as much as I understand where they’re comin’ from– when I meet gay and lesbian couples, when I meet same-sex couples, and I see– how caring they are, how much love they have in their hearts– how they’re takin’ care of their kids. When I hear from them the pain they feel that somehow they are still considered– less than full citizens when it comes to– their legal rights– then– for me, I think it– it just has tipped the scales in that direction.
And– you know, one of the things that you see in– a state like New York that– ended up– legalizing same-sex marriages– was I thought they did a good job in engaging the religious community. Making it absolutely clear that what we’re talking about are civil marriages and civil laws.
That they’re re– re– respectful of religious liberty, that– you know, churches and other faith institutions– are still gonna be able to make determinations about what they’re sacraments are– what they recognize. But from the perspective of– of the law and perspective of the state– I think it’s important– to say that in this country we’ve always been about– fairness. And– and treatin’ everybody– as equals. Or at least that’s been our aspiration. And I think– that applies here, as well.
ROBIN ROBERTS: So if you were the governor of New York or legislator in North Carolina, you would not be opposed? You would vote for legalizing same-sex marriage?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I would. And– and that’s– that’s part of the– the evolution that I went through. I– I asked myself– right after that New York vote took place, if I had been a state senator, which I was for a time– how would I have voted? And I had to admit to myself, “You know what? I think that– I would have voted yes.” It would have been hard for me, knowing– all the friends and family– that– are gays or lesbians, that for me to say to them, you know, “I voted to oppose you having– the same kind of rights– and responsibilities– that I have.”
And– you know, it’s interesting. Some of this is also generational. You know, when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that– I have terrible policies on the– the economy or on foreign policy. But are very clear that when it comes to same-sex equality or, you know– sexual orientation that they believe in equality. They’re much more comfortable with it.
You know, Malia and Sasha, they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples. And I– you know, there have been times where Michelle and I have been sittin’ around the dinner table. And we’ve been talkin’ and– about their friends and their parents. And Malia and Sasha would– it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them. And– and frankly– that’s the kind of thing that prompts– a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated– differently, when it comes to– the eyes of the law.
ROBIN ROBERTS: I– I know you were saying– and are saying about it being on the local level and the state level. But as president of the United States and this is a game changer for many people, to hear the president of the United States for the first time say that personally he has no objection to same-sex marriage. Are there some actions that you can take as president? Can you ask your Justice Department to join in the litigation in fighting states that are banning same-sex marriage?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I– you know, my Justice Department has already– said that it is not gonna defend– the Defense Against Marriage Act. That we consider that a violation of equal protection clause. And I agree with them on that. You know? I helped to prompt that– that move on the part of the Justice Department.
Part of the reason that I thought it was important– to speak to this issue was the fact that– you know, I’ve got an opponent on– on the other side in the upcoming presidential election, who wants to– re-federalize the issue and– institute a constitutional amendment– that would prohibit gay marriage. And, you know, I think it is a mistake to– try to make what has traditionally been a state issue into a national issue.
I think that– you know, the winds of change are happening. They’re not blowin’– with the same force in every state. But I think that what you’re gonna see is– is– is states– coming to– the realization that if– if a soldier can fight for us, if a police officer can protect our neighborhoods– if a fire fighter is expected to go into a burning building– to save our possessions or our kids. The notion that after they were done with that, that we’d say to them, “Oh but by the way, we’re gonna treat you differently. That you may not be able to– enjoy– the– the ability of– of passing on– what you have to your loved one, if you– if you die. The notion that somehow if– if you get sick, your loved one might have trouble visiting you in a hospital.”
You know, I think that as more and more folks think about it, they’re gonna say, you know, “That’s not who we are.” And– and– as I said, I want to– I want to emphasize– that– I’ve got a lot of friends– on the other side of this issue. You know, I’m sure they’ll be callin’ me up and– and I respect them. And I understand their perspective, in part, because– their impulse is the right one. Which is they want to– they want to preserve and strengthen families.
And I think they’re concerned about– won’t you see families breaking down. It’s just that– maybe they haven’t had the experience that I have had in seeing same-sex couples, who are as committed, as monogamous, as responsible– as loving of– of– of a group of parents as– any– heterose– sexual couple that I know. And in some cases, more so.
And, you know– if you look at the underlying values that we care so deeply about when we describe family, commitment, responsibility, lookin’ after one another– you know, teaching– our kids to– to be responsible citizens and– caring for one another– I actually think that– you know, it’s consistent with our best and in some cases our most conservative values, sort of the foundation of what– made this country great.
ROBIN ROBERTS: Obviously, you have put a lot of thought into this. And you bring up Mitt Romney. And you and others in your administration have been critical of him changing positions, feeling that he’s doing it for political gain. You realize there are going to be some people that are going to be saying the same with you about this, when you are not president, you were for gay marriage. Then 2007, you changed your position. A couple years ago, you said you were evolving. And the evolution seems to have been something that we’re discussing right now. But do you– do you see where some people might consider that the same thing, being politics?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, if you– if you look at my trajectory here, I’ve always been strongly in favor of civil unions. Always been strongly opposed to discrimination against gays and lesbians. I’ve been consistent in my overall trajectory. The one thing that– I’ve wrestled with is– this gay marriage issue. And– I think it’d be hard to argue that somehow this is– something that I’d be doin’ for political advantage– because frankly, you know– you know, the politics, it’s not clear how they cut.
In some places that are gonna be pretty important– in this electoral map– it may hurt me. But– you know, I think it– it was important for me, given how much attention this issue was getting, both here in Washington, but– elsewhere, for me to go ahead, “Let’s be clear. Here’s what I believe.” But I’m not gonna be spending most of my time talking about this, because frankly– my job as president right now, my biggest priority is to make sure that– we’re growing the economy, that we’re puttin’ people back to work, that we’re managing the draw down in Afghanistan, effectively. Those are the things that– I’m gonna focus on. And– I’m sure there’s gonna be more than enough to argue about with the other side, when it comes to– when it comes to our politics.
ROBIN ROBERTS: Lookin’ forward to talkin’ to her about her cookbook. But a final question since you talked about that. Did you discuss this with Mrs. Obama, the same-sex marriage issue?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I did.
ROBIN ROBERTS: Was that something–
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, no, this is somethin’ that– you know, we’ve talked about– you know, over the years. And– and she f– you know, she feels the same way that– she feels the same way that I do. And that is that– in– in– in the end, the– the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is– is how we treat other people.
And– you know, I– you know– you know, we– we’re both– practicing Christians. And– and obviously– this position may be considered to put as at odds with– the views of– of others. But– you know, when we think about our faith, the– the thing– you know, at– at root that we think about is not only– Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf– but it’s also the golden rule, you know? Treat others the way you’d want to be treated. And– and I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids. And– that’s what motivates me as president. And– I figure the more consistent I can be– in being true– to– to those precepts– the better I’ll be as a dad and a husband, and– hopefully the better I’ll be as a president.
ROBIN ROBERTS: Mr. President, thank you very much.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. Great to talk to you.
ROBIN ROBERTS: You as well.
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