Obama told Buzzfeed News that Axelrod had become confused on his views when he detailed the long-suspected narrative in his new memoir “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.”
“I think David is mixing up my personal feelings with my position on the issue,” Obama told Buzzfeed. “My thinking at the time was that civil unions — which I always supported — was a sufficient way of squaring the circle. That, OK, we won’t call it ‘marriage,’ we’ll call it ‘civil unions,’ same-sex couples will have the same rights as anybody else, but the word ‘marriage’ with its religious connotations historically would be preserved for marriages between men and women.”
Axelrod, who served as Obama’s chief campaign adviser during the 2008 race and later as a senior adviser at the White House, wrote that the president decided not to publicly support gay marriage because of the political environment seven years ago. It’s a narrative that was long suspected by progressives.
“I’m just not very good at bullsh-tting,” Obama told Axelrod according to the book. But throughout his first victorious presidential campaign the then-Illinois senator stuck by a position of support for civil unions but not full marriage rights, even as conservatives pointed to the president’s previously stated support for marriage equality in 1996 questionnaire. Later, as president, Obama said his position was evolving; and in 2012 he came out in full favor of gay marriage.
But Obama said his evolution wasn’t about coming clean, it was a change of heart.
“Where my evolution took place was not in my attitude toward same-sex couples, it was in understanding the pain and the sense of stigma that was being placed on same-sex couples who are friends of mine, where they’d say, ‘You know what, if you’re not calling it marriage, it doesn’t feel like the same thing. Even if you gave me the same rights, the fact that I’m being treated differently or the love that we feel is somehow segmented off, that hurts,’” the president told Buzzfeed. “It was because of those conversations that I ended up shifting positions, that civil unions, in fact, were not sufficient rather than marriage. But I think the notion that somehow I was always in favor of marriage per se isn’t quite accurate.”
In the book, Axelrod wrote that he personally pressured the president to stay mum about his conviction that gay couples should be allowed to marry.
“Opposition to gay marriage was particularly strong in the black church, and as he ran for higher office, he grudgingly accepted the counsel of more pragmatic folks like me, and modified his position to support civil unions rather than marriage, which he would term a ‘sacred union,’” Axelrod writes in “Believer.”
“Having prided himself on forthrightness, though, Obama never felt comfortable with his compromise and, no doubt, compromised position,” Axelrod adds. “He routinely stumbled over the question when it came up in debates or interviews.”
Additional reporting by Adam Howard.