In many ways, Obama's trajectory parallels that of the nation. But no one's vacillation on the subject has been more closely watched than his. While he always has advocated for civil rights for gay couples, he also very publicly contemplated where he stood on the question of marriage, musing in 2006 that "in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history."
The transition to unequivocal support was reinforced Wednesday by the cheers that erupted on Air Force One when news broke about the court's decision to repeal a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act.
"The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it," Obama said in a statement.
On Thursday, Obama took that message to Senegal, a country that outlaws homosexuality. While acknowledging differing cultural and religious views, he said he also wanted to stress the importance of nondiscrimination under the law.
"People should be treated equally and that's a principal that I think applies universally," he said in a news conference in Dakar. Senegalese President Macky Sall, at his side, responded that while his country is tolerant, "We are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality."
Obama has carefully staked out his position on same-sex marriage throughout his political career. In a questionnaire from a gay newspaper in Chicago during his 1996 Illinois Senate race, he replied, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." Two years later, he declared himself undecided.
By 2004, as he ran for the U.S. Senate, he said he opposed gay marriage for politically strategic reasons, saying Republicans would exploit the issue, and he advocated instead for gay civil unions. In his 2006 book "The Audacity of Hope," he cited his own faith as a reason to oppose same-sex marriage, though he also wrote, "I must admit that I may have been infected with society's prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God."
Despite initial apprehensions, many gay rights advocates now hail him as a hero.
Even before he announced his support for gay marriage in May of last year, gay donors were pumping several million dollars into Obama's campaign fund as he ran for re-election. He already had signed hate crimes legislation that made it a federal crime to assault someone because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, had signed a repeal of the "don't ask don't tell" military policy and had instructed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act.
"In terms of American society, he has truly brought us out of the closet," said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group. "He has lived up to his claim of being a tireless advocate on behalf of our community."
Advocates would still like the government in general and Obama in particular to do more. They are pushing the Senate to pass an employment nondiscrimination law that would protect workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Short of that, they want Obama to impose that requirement on federal contractors, a step Obama so far has resisted.
"We have our skirmishes with the administration certainly on some issues," Sainz said. Of Obama not signing an executive order on federal contractors, he said, "It's a head-scratcher to us."
The court's decision showcased more than just Obama's evolving views. President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
On Wednesday, he and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, issued a joint statement: "By overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, the court recognized that discrimination towards any group holds us all back in our efforts to form a more perfect union."
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