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Obama's family influenced his gay-marriage shift, aides say

May 10, 2012|By Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON -- As he weighed a shift in his public position on gay marriage, perhaps no one had as much influence on President Obama as his wife, Michelle.

"This is something that, you know, we've talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do," Obama told ABC's Robin Roberts on Wednesday.

Even as Obama's position was in a state of evolution, White House advisors said, the first lady went out of her way to invite gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual couples to the events she sponsored for military families.

Around the West Wing, there are several gay staffers, and at least one in a committed relationship and raising children. And the Obama daughters have friends with same-sex parents, whom the first family has gotten to know.

"There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table and we're talking about their friends and their parents, and Malia and Sasha, it wouldn't dawn on them that somehow their friends' parents would be treated differently. It doesn't make sense to them and frankly, that's the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective," Obama said.

One day a few weeks ago, aides said, the president told his top advisors that he had reached a personal decision. He wanted to weigh in on the gay-marriage discussion.

"He was ready," said one senior administration official who requested anonymity to discuss the private talk.

The account offered by White House aides Wednesday gives the impression of a carefully planned rollout of the president's new view. Before then, the subject was one officials were reluctant to discuss.

After Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday that he was "absolutely comfortable" with gay couples being married, the White House was at pains to say the comments were entirely consistent with Obama's position, and swatted away questions about new policy that might be forthcoming.

Now, following the president's comments, aides say he wanted to affirm the idea of same-sex marriage before the Democratic National Convention.

It would be a subject of discussion in platform talks and in private conversation, the president told his team, and he wanted to be in front of it. He also felt it was right to tell the country that he had arrived at a new place before the election, said a second senior official.

Advisors tried to game out how that would play in terms of the election: Maybe swing-state voters wouldn't like it, it would suppress enthusiasm among black volunteers or it would turn off evangelical Latinos otherwise leaning toward Obama.

On the other hand, maybe voters would give him credit for taking a stand. Perhaps young volunteers and donors would be inspired and energized by the move.

There was no way to predict the "crosscurrents," said the second official.

The White House team was planning to take more time to lay out their plan, but then the vice president went on "Meet the Press" last Sunday. He wasn't expected to articulate his own view if asked about this but rather to talk about the president's record and evolving viewpoint.

Because the vice president knew Obama was ready, a senior advisor said, he "leaned in more than he normally would have" when he was asked about the issue.

A day later, Education Secretary Arne Duncan surprised the staff by weighing in with his position in support of same-sex marriage.

The two events combined served to move up the timing, and the West Wing reached out to ABC to give the president a chance to say it himself.

"He always planned to do it sooner rather than later," the official said. "This just moved up the timing."

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