But his endorsement has increased hopes among gay rights groups that Obama will take a more forceful stand on gay rights as well as gay marriage, which remains a divisive and emotional subject that could complicate his reelection efforts.
“This is the most LGBT-friendly administration in history, and the things the White House has done and the administrative agencies have done on behalf of [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people are tremendous,” said Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, which advocates for same-sex couples in the immigration system. “And yet, everybody wants full equality, not half equality.”
Groups say they hope Obama’s pronouncement clears the way for him to more vocally oppose the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that bans recognition of same-sex marriage at the federal level. Obama has called the law discriminatory and directed the Justice Department not to defend it in court, but groups say they hope he will play a more prominent role in the fight to repeal it.
The groups also would like him to provide greater protections for gay spouses at risk of deportation. While heterosexual married people are permitted to sponsor their foreign national spouses for citizenship, gay couples do not have that right even if they are legally married in their home states.
The Obama administration adopted a policy last year that allows immigration judges to suspend deportation in some of these cases. But groups have been lobbying the administration to allow such couples to stay in this country while Congress and the courts contemplate the fate of the 1996 legislation.
Gay rights advocates also are hoping Obama will move forward with an executive order that would ban discrimination against gay employees by government contractors. Obama’s decision last month not to follow through with the order angered some supporters, who accused him of failing to deliver on a campaign promise.
Senior administration officials indicated there was no intention to reverse course on that decision, describing it as a separate issue. It was a sign that Obama’s announcement in support of gay marriage did not represent a wholesale change in approach.
Despite his endorsement Wednesday, Obama suggested that he would leave it to the states to decide whether to legalize same-sex marriage or not, a position that drew rebukes from some liberal critics.
“Obama has endorsed marriage equality federalism — not the notion that marriage for gays and lesbians is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution that can never be taken away,” Adam Serwer wrote in Mother Jones. “In other words, Obama has left room for more evolution.”
Still, gay groups say Obama has done more for their movement than any other president. Under his leadership, Congress repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gay service members. In October, Obama signed a bill that makes it a federal crime to assault a person over his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. And the groups hailed Obama’s decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court as a “watershed” moment for their cause.
They say he has handed them a powerful cudgel with his emotional statement in favor of gay marriage. Obama has struggled to articulate a clear and consistent position on gay unions and most recently had said he was grappling with the issue. But on Wednesday, he spoke in deeply personal terms about his newfound support for such unions.
That the U.S. president has thrown his support behind this cause is a tremendous boon in the fight for hearts and minds, said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a prominent pro-gay-marriage group.
“The president has lent his tremendous moral authority, and gave a very powerful personal example, that will help spur action and persuade many people,” Wolfson said. “That’s now a historical fact and a tremendous inspiration that will reverberate at kitchen tables around the country.”