President Barack Obama said Vice President Joe Biden got “a little bit over his skis” in publicly embracing gay marriage, forcing Obama to speed up his own plans to announce his historic support for the right of same-sex couples to marry.
“Would I have preferred to have done this in my own way, in my own terms, without I think, there being a lot of notice to everybody? Sure,” Obama said. “But all’s well that ends well.”
Obama, who was ready Thursday to dive into the embrace of Hollywood’s wealthy elite at a gala fund-raising event, said he had planned to announce his support for gay marriage before his party’s convention in early September. But he told ABC News that his hand was forced by Biden, though he said his vice president spoke out in support of same-sex marriage out of a “generosity of spirit.”
The president made his historical endorsement on the eve of a sold-out fundraiser Thursday evening at the Los Angeles home of movie star George Clooney.
The timing of the event is creating a blockbuster confluence of high celebrity, big money and committed activism. Hollywood is home to some of the most high-profile backers of gay marriage and the 150 donors who are paying $40,000 to attend Clooney’s dinner Thursday night will no doubt feel newly invigorated by Obama’s watershed announcement the day before.
Overall, the dinner is expected to raise close to $15 million – about $6 million from the guests and the rest from a campaign contest for small-dollar donors, the winners of which get to participate in the dinner. It is an unprecedented amount for a single event. And it means that in one single evening the Obama camp and the Democratic Party will collect more than Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican challenger, has amassed in his best single month of fundraising.
Obama will also hold fundraisers earlier in the day in Seattle, where he was expected to collect at least $3 million toward his re-election effort. On Friday, he will fly to Nevada, a highly contested state, where he will call for housing relief in a speech in Reno.
But Obama’s support of gay marriage, announced in an ABC interview Wednesday, will be dominant, culminating in yet another fundraiser Monday in New York sponsored by gay and Latino Obama supporters.
“I have hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” Obama said in the interview. But he added that now, “it is important for me personally to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
Even though Obama doesn’t have the power to make same-sex marriage legal, his announcement was the first by a sitting president.
Gay rights advocates, who had long urged Obama to state his support, immediately cheered his declaration.
Obama’s re-election campaign also quickly sought to take advantage of Obama’s embrace of gay marriage and draw a sharp contrast with the president’s Republican rival Mitt Romney.
By day’s end Wednesday, the campaign had emailed a clip of the interview and a personal statement from the president to its vast list of supporters, drawing attention to his stance. On Thursday morning, the campaign released a web video claiming Romney would roll back some rights for same-sex couples and calling the Republican “backwards on equality.”
When asked in a portion of the ABC interview that aired Thursday morning on “Good Morning, America” if his public statement was part of his re-election strategy, the president replied, “It would be hard to argue that somehow this is something that I’d be doing for political advantage because frankly, the politics, it’s not clear how they’re going to cut.”
Gay marriage remains enough of a divisive issue that there could be political risks. If opposition to gay marriage drives even a sliver of the voting population, it could make a difference in close swing states. Moreover, it could boost fundraising for social conservative groups that are mounting their own campaigns against Obama and galvanize conservatives still uncertain about Romney’s commitment to their causes.
“Twenty-four hours ago, we were talking about what Romney had to do to get social conservatives on board,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition. “Now, they’re scrambling for a seat in first class.”
Romney, meanwhile, quickly reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage. “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said while campaigning in Oklahoma.
In announcing a position that he said had been evolving for some time, Obama emphasized that it was his personal view. Aides said he continues to believe that marriage is an issue best decided by states.
His decision came just a day after voters in North Carolina, a state the Obama camp hopes to be in play in November, approved an amendment to the state constitution affirming that marriage may only be a union of a man and a woman. It also came just days after Biden unexpectedly ignited a discussion of the issue by declaring he was comfortable with same-sex marriage.
In some ways, Obama is a lagging voice among Democrats on gay marriage. Besides Biden, former President Bill Clinton has expressed support and Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, said Monday that he backed gay marriage as well. In addition, former Vice President Dick Cheney and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have taken stands in support.
“It was probably untenable to keep in a position of evolving and not stating where he is, given the course of events,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has conducted a number of surveys on gay marriage.
With his position declared, Obama now heads to Hollywood, which has been outspoken in its support of gay rights. But though Obama will be in a liberal bastion, California itself illustrates the crosscurrents of gay marriage. Californians have twice voted to ban gay marriage, most recently in 2008. The most recent ban, known as Proposition 8, is being fought in the courts.
Clooney’s dinner was organized by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation, and will include such celebrity guests as Robert Downey Jr. and Barbra Streisand. The event was initially to be a spring gala hosted by Katzenberg at his house. But Katzenberg’s home is under renovation, so Clooney offered to host instead.
That prompted the Obama campaign to conceive an online raffle for the general public. Tens of thousands of people participated, drawn by the campaign’s pitch: “For a chance to hang out with President Obama at George Clooney’s house, donate $3 or whatever you can to be automatically entered to win.”