When Obama Changed His Mind


I recently revisited the transcript of Obama's interview with Robin Roberts back in the Spring of 2012. Setting aside my frustrations and ambivalence over the current political climate in this country, I was really interested in how Obama discussed changing his mind about gay marriage. Not as a politician. Not as a world leader. Not even as a Christian. I was interested to see how he processed through this issue as a human

He talked about his gay friends, staff members and neighbors. He talked about Sasha and Malia, his daughters. He even talked about Christian leaders on all sides of the issue. And he talked about being influenced by all of them. In other words, for a while his political stance on the issue took a backseat to those relationships. It seemed like a deeply personal decision. 

I still think it's a fascinating interview from that point of view. And I still appreciate today what I saw back a year-and-a-half ago. Here's what I wrote then:

Last week, President Obama made history by vocalizing his support for marriage for gay and lesbian individuals, the first sitting president to do so. The flood of media coverage surrounding his interview with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts has been largely focused on the social and political implications of his declaration. I first caught on to this story through brief sound-bites and political talking heads, all commenting on what they saw as a calculated move in the months leading up to the elections. And to be sure, I agree that it was politically motivated, but when I finally found a full transcript of the original interview, I was surprised. The president did not come across as strategic or assertive or even eloquent. It was not a sound-bite friendly interview.

But the media outlets are doing their best with it. Pundits on both sides of the issue are portraying the President as a champion for Gay Rights. (Newsweek has him on their cover with a rainbow-colored halo and the title, “The First Gay President”). But that’s not how he came across.

This was not a policy statement. It was a personal conviction. Listening to him speak, his declaration, well–it can hardly be called a declaration at all. So what was it?

Regardless of our politics, or where you or I fall on this issue, I think it’s healthy to at least acknowledge what was special about this interview. With the most polarizing issue at the most polarized time in our nation’s politics, isn’t it important to humanize our leaders? I don’t agree with everything the President says, but I saw his humanity last week. Here’s what I heard and appreciated in this interview:

He was meek. It’s rare for anyone, let alone a politician, to admit they have changed their minds on an important issue. But that’s essentially what he said. He experienced an “evolution on this issue.” For most of his presidency, he has supported civil unions, but withheld support for gay marriage because “the word marriage was something that evokes very powerful traditions [and] religious beliefs.” That all changed last week when he admitted that civil unions were insufficient, contributing to “the pain [gays and lesbians] feel that somehow they are still considered less than full citizens.”

The Commander-in-Chief painted himself almost as a student in making this decision, quietly listening to and learning from his friends and staff members–even his children, whom he admitted were much more comfortable with the idea of gay marriage than he was. He admitted his hesitancy and discomfort, but kept an open mind. And it was changed.

He was personal. It’s been my experience that most people who view homosexuality as a threat do not actually associate with any open gay and lesbian individuals. When you do–and Obama clearly has–the fear and presuppositions gradually fade, and what you’re left with is a real person. Relatable, even.

The President came to his conviction as most people do: not by reasoning through the arguments, but by interacting with actual gays and lesbians. His decision was relationally informed. He was sympathetic to his own staff members “who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.”

In the end, Obama cited his Christian faith in helping to make the decision. He considered Jesus’ Golden Rule, “treat others the way you’d want to be treated,” as he summarizes, to be one of the guiding precepts of his family’s faith. I got the impression that he wrestled with reconciling what seem to be contradictory teachings in the Bible about accepting gays and lesbians. And that’s not uncommon. But what is uncommon is for a leader to be vulnerable and sincere about the formation of his personal faith convictions.

He was civil. This is probably what I appreciated most about Obama’s interview last week, and, really, about his presidency thus far. He was very civil. What little charged rhetoric he used in the interview was reserved for presidential rival Mitt Romney. But when speaking of friends and pastors who remain against gay marriage, he shows a rare generosity. “I understand their perspective,” he said, “in part, because– their impulse is the right one. Which is they want to– they want to preserve and strengthen families.”

For Obama, the heart of the debate over gay marriage is not whether to force conservative or liberal social values on society, but how best to protect and promote families. By framing the conversation this way, he provides common ground on which both parties can agree. We can all begin this discussion knowing that the other party has the “right impulse” to “preserve and strengthen families.”

Perhaps he can assure us that most traditional marriage proponents “are not coming at it from a mean-spirited perspective” because he was once one of them. He speaks with the kind of respect and understanding that can only come from having once stood with those who oppose you.

So what do we make of this man and this decision? Can we be proud that he handled this issue with such sincerity regardless of what conclusions we ourselves have made? I hope so. Regardless of the political ramifications of his new position, I hope that Obama’s interview helps to elevate the conversation. I hope people on both sides of the issue approach it with a bit more meekness, personal reflection and civility toward those who disagree. This is the example he set and I think we would be wise to follow it.