Hollywood Had a Hand in Obama's Evolution on Marriage Equality (Analysis)

Barack Obama Backs Gay Marriage Screengrab - H 2012
ABC News

Barack Obama Backs Gay Marriage Screengrab - H 2012

Entertainment industry activists have repeatedly raised the issue with the president.

An accomplished politician often can hold the narrowest imaginable strategic ground, but none can comfortably occupy a seat on the razor’s edge.

That’s precisely where President Barack Obama found himself this week when it came to the question of marriage equality -- and precisely why he finally elected to come out about his support for the rights of same-sex couples. Marriage equality likely will be the defining social issue in November, and Hollywood has played a crucial role in what the president calls his “evolution” from 2008, when he told evangelical pastor Rick Warren that he supported only heterosexual unions, because "for me as a Christian, it’s also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”

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Longtime Hollywood Democratic strategist and political adviser Chad Griffin, who organized the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8 and now heads the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama’s declaration would be “celebrated by generations to come. For the millions of young gay and lesbian Americans across this nation, their president’s words provide genuine hope that they will be the first generation to grow up with the freedom to fully pursue the American dream. Marriage -- the promise of love, companionship and family -- is basic to the pursuit of that dream.”

Just how deeply that sentiment runs in Hollywood was clear earlier this year when, after a reading of Academy Award-winning screen writer Dustin Lance Black’s play 8, George Clooney told The Hollywood Reporter that he supports marriage equality because “It's important to be on the right side of history. In 20 years, I don't want anyone to wonder where I stood. At some point, people are going to look back and wonder why this was ever an issue.” (Obama opposed Prop. 8, calling it “divisive and discriminatory.”)

Hollywood's gay activists, moreover, have become an increasingly important component in the Democrats’ vital entertainment industry fundraising base. The Washington Post has reported that one in six of the president’s top campaign finance bundlers is gay, and their candidate’s forthright embrace of what has become for them a make-or-break issue is bound to ramp up support and enthusiasm. On June 6, the president will be at the SLS hotel in Beverly Hills for an LGBT fundraiser featuring a performance by Pink. (A sellout now is virtually guaranteed.) Obama will be at another LBGT fundraiser Monday in New York, featuring a performance by Ricky Martin.

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Fundraising, however, is not the only consideration. Obama was prodded into his public stand by the storm of attention that followed Vice President Joe Biden’s appearance Sunday on Meet the Press, during which he described himself as “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex unions. Biden’s stance carried a particular kind of authority because he is a devout Catholic and storied family man who traveled home by train every night to Delaware during all the years he served in the Senate.

During his remarkably unguarded and wide-ranging remarks Sunday, Biden credited a number of popular television shows with changing public attitudes toward marriage equality, saying that Will and Grace probably “did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”

In a particularly personal moment, Biden described attending a fundraiser two weeks earlier at the L.A. home of HBO executive Michael Lombardo and his partner, actor Sonny Ward. (The vice president did not name the couple.) Biden said he recalled meeting the couple’s two young children and, then -- during a subsequent question-and-answer session -- being asked by a gay man, “How do you feel about us?”

Biden recounted: “I turned to the man who owned the house. I said, ‘What did I do when I walked in?’ He said: ‘You walked right to my children. They were 7 and 5, giving you flowers.’ And I said, ‘I wish every American could see the look of love those kids had in their eyes for you guys. And they wouldn’t have any doubt about what this is about.’ ”

Following Biden's comments Sunday, reporters at the next morning’s White House briefing peppered press secretary Jay Carney with questions about whether the administration was divided over marriage equality and whether the president shared Biden’s views. If there was one thing Obama wanted to avoid in the coming campaign, it was the kind of rhetorical dance -- however skillful -- in which Carney had to engage Monday.

By midweek, the president had made a cut-your-losses political calculation: If he came out and admitted that he, in fact, believes in marriage equality, the Republicans would attempt to turn it into a wedge issue, particularly in the crucial swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania where large blocs of socially conservative, blue-collar ethnic Catholic voters are inclined to be skeptical about Obama anyway. At least that will be a stand-up political fight. If he tried to avoid it, the president risked a two-front battle -- one with the GOP, which would charge he believed in same-sex marriage but was afraid to admit it, and one with elements within his own Democratic base increasingly disenchanted with his timidity.

In the end, Obama chose a united Democratic base with enthusiastic gay and lesbian donors and fundraisers over what was bound to be an increasingly uncomfortable accommodation with social conservatives he may find hard to hold anyway.

Nationally, a Gallup Poll released this week found that 50 percent of those surveyed now support marriage equality, while 48 percent oppose it. That’s a 10-point shift in approval for same-sex unions during the past three years. The problem for candidate Obama is that -- as Bush v. Gore reminded everyone -- our presidential elections are not a national plebiscite but a state-by-state contest for electoral votes.

Whatever the impact, Barack Obama now has crossed the marriage equality Rubicon -- and the cheers are likely to resound through Hollywood for months to come.

A sampling of celebrity reaction on Twitter:

Ricky Martin @ricky_martin:  "I applaud President @barackobama for affirming that ALL Americans should enjoy equal rights. Historic! I will be a very proud host on Monday."

Alec Baldwin ‏?@alecbaldwi?n: "Obama gets it right on gay marriage. Bravo."

Ellen DeGeneres @TheEllenShow:  "Thank you President @BarackObama for your beautiful and brave words. I'm overwhelmed."

Neil Patrick Harris @ActuallyNPH:  "@BarackObama: President Obama announces his support for same-sex marriage: http://t.co/MPfIBIUy” Bravo, Mr. President, and thank you."

Jesse Tyler Ferguson @jessetyler: "With @MichelleObama & @JustinMikita permission I would like to marry @BarackObama right now!"

Sam Harris @SamHarris: "Obama Evolves!! I've always known he felt this way, but it's good to hear him finally say it - especially in an... http://t.co/OmZuDQFo "

Jane Lynch @janemarielynch: "Pretty darn happy today. Thanks Mr President, for supporting the dignity of my family and so many others!"

Sandra Bernhard ?@SandraBernhard?: "viva Obama who has just endorsed gay marriage. right on time drop a dime blow your mind."

Roseanne Barr ‏ ?@TheRealRoseanne:? "YES! @barackobama speaks out for full marriage equality. History is made. Send a thank you note w/ @HRC: http://bit.ly/IUmX13 #LGBT "