Barack Obama photo

Interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News

May 09, 2012

ROBERTS: Good to see you, as always--

THE PRESIDENT: Good to see you, Robin.

ROBERTS: Mr. President. Thank you for this opportunity to talk to you about—various issues. And it's been quite a week and it's only Wednesday. (LAUGH)

THE PRESIDENT: That's typical of my week.

ROBERTS: I'm sure it is. One of the hot button issues because of things that have been said by members of your administration, same-sex marriage. In fact, your press secretary yesterday said he would leave it to you to discuss your personal views on that. So Mr. President, are you still opposed to same-sex marriage?

THE PRESIDENT: Well—you know, I have to tell you, as I've said, I've—I've been going through an evolution on this issue. I've always been adamant that—gay and lesbian—Americans should be treated fairly and equally. And that's why in addition to everything we've done in this administration, rolling back Don't Ask, Don't Tell—so that—you know, outstanding Americans can serve our country. Whether it's no longer defending the Defense Against Marriage Act, which—tried to federalize—what is historically been state law.

I've stood on the side of broader equality for—the L.G.B.T. community. And I had hesitated on gay marriage—in part, because I thought civil unions would be sufficient. That that was something that would give people hospital visitation rights and—other—elements that we take for granted. And—I was sensitive to the fact that—for a lot of people, you know, the word marriage was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs, and so forth.

But I have to tell you that over the course of—several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors. When I think about—members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together. When I think about—those soldiers or airmen or marines or—sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf—and yet, feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is gone, because—they're not able to—commit themselves in a marriage.

At a certain point, I've just concluded that—for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that—I think same-sex couples should be able to get married. Now—I have to tell you that part of my hesitation on this has also been I didn't want to nationalize the issue. There's a tendency when I weigh in to think suddenly it becomes political and it becomes polarized.

And what you're seeing is, I think, states working through this issue—in fits and starts, all across the country. Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times. And I think that's a healthy process and a healthy debate. And I continue to believe that this is an issue that is gonna be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what's recognized as a marriage.

ROBERTS: Well, Mr. President, it's—it's not being worked out on the state level. We saw that Tuesday in North Carolina, the 30th state to announce its ban on gay marriage.

THE PRESIDENT: Well—well—well, what I'm saying is is that different states are coming to different conclusions. But this debate is taking place—at a local level. And I think the whole country is evolving and changing. And—you know, one of the things that I'd like to see is—that a conversation continue in a respectful way.

I think it's important to recognize that—folks—who—feel very strongly that marriage should be defined narrowly as—between a man and a woman—many of them are not coming at it from a mean-spirited perspective. They're coming at it because they care about families. And—they—they have a different understanding, in terms of—you know, what the word "marriage" should mean. And I—a bunch of 'em are friends of mine—you know, pastors and—you know, people who—I deeply respect.

ROBERTS: Especially in the Black community.

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely.

ROBERTS: And it's very—a difficult conversation to have.

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. But—but I think it's important for me—to say to them that as much as I respect 'em, as much as I understand where they're comin' from—when I meet gay and lesbian couples, when I meet same-sex couples, and I see—how caring they are, how much love they have in their hearts—how they're takin' care of their kids. When I hear from them the pain they feel that somehow they are still considered—less than full citizens when it comes to—their legal rights—then—for me, I think it—it just has tipped the scales in that direction.

And—you know, one of the things that you see in—a state like New York that—ended up—legalizing same-sex marriages—was I thought they did a good job in engaging the religious community. Making it absolutely clear that what we're talking about are civil marriages and civil laws.

That they're respectful of religious liberty, that—you know, churches and other faith institutions—are still gonna be able to make determinations about what they're sacraments are—what they recognize. But from the perspective of—of the law and perspective of the state—I think it's important—to say that in this country we've always been about—fairness. And—and treatin' everybody—as equals. Or at least that's been our aspiration. And I think—that applies here, as well.

ROBERTS: So if you were the governor of New York or legislator in North Carolina, you would not be opposed? You would vote for legalizing same-sex marriage?

THE PRESIDENT: I would. And—and that's—that's part of the—the evolution that I went through. I asked myself—right after that New York vote took place, if I had been a state senator, which I was for a time—how would I have voted? And I had to admit to myself, "You know what? I think that—I would have voted yes." It would have been hard for me, knowing—all the friends and family—that—are gays or lesbians, that for me to say to them, you know, "I voted to oppose you having—the same kind of rights—and responsibilities—that I have."

And—you know, it's interesting. Some of this is also generational. You know, when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that—I have terrible policies on the—the economy or on foreign policy. But are very clear that when it comes to same-sex equality or, you know—sexual orientation that they believe in equality. They're much more comfortable with it.

You know, Malia and Sasha, they've got friends whose parents are same-sex couples. And I—you know, there have been times where Michelle and I have been sittin' around the dinner table. And we've been talkin' and—about their friends and their parents. And Malia and Sasha would—it wouldn't dawn on them that somehow their friends' parents would be treated differently. It doesn't make sense to them. And—and frankly—that's the kind of thing that prompts—a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated—differently, when it comes to—the eyes of the law.

ROBERTS: I—I know you were saying—and are saying about it being on the local level and the state level. But as president of the United States and this is a game changer for many people, to hear the president of the United States for the first time say that personally he has no objection to same-sex marriage. Are there some actions that you can take as president? Can you ask your Justice Department to join in the litigation in fighting states that are banning same-sex marriage?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I—you know, my Justice Department has already—said that it is not gonna defend—the Defense Against Marriage Act. That we consider that a violation of equal protection clause. And I agree with them on that. You know? I helped to prompt that—that move on the part of the Justice Department.

Part of the reason that I thought it was important—to speak to this issue was the fact that—you know, I've got an opponent on—on the other side in the upcoming presidential election, who wants to—re-federalize the issue and—institute a constitutional amendment—that would prohibit gay marriage. And, you know, I think it is a mistake to—try to make what has traditionally been a state issue into a national issue.

I think that—you know, the winds of change are happening. They're not blowin'—with the same force in every state. But I think that what you're gonna see is states—coming to—the realization that if—if a soldier can fight for us, if a police officer can protect our neighborhoods—if a fire fighter is expected to go into a burning building—to save our possessions or our kids. The notion that after they were done with that, that we'd say to them, "Oh but by the way, we're gonna treat you differently. That you may not be able to—enjoy—the—the ability of—of passing on—what you have to your loved one, if you—if you die. The notion that somehow if—if you get sick, your loved one might have trouble visiting you in a hospital."

You know, I think that as more and more folks think about it, they're gonna say, you know, "That's not who we are." And as I said, I want to—I want to emphasize—that—I've got a lot of friends—on the other side of this issue. You know, I'm sure they'll be callin' me up and—and I respect them. And I understand their perspective, in part, because—their impulse is the right one. Which is they want to—they want to preserve and strengthen families.

And I think they're concerned about—won't you see families breaking down. It's just that—maybe they haven't had the experience that I have had in seeing same-sex couples, who are as committed, as monogamous, as responsible—as loving of a group of parents as—any—heterosexual couple that I know. And in some cases, more so.

And, you know—if you look at the underlying values that we care so deeply about when we describe family, commitment, responsibility, lookin' after one another—you know, teaching—our kids to—to be responsible citizens and—caring for one another—I actually think that—you know, it's consistent with our best and in some cases our most conservative values, sort of the foundation of what—made this country great.

ROBERTS: Obviously, you have put a lot of thought into this. And you bring up Mitt Romney. And you and others in your administration have been critical of him changing positions, feeling that he's doing it for political gain. You realize there are going to be some people that are going to be saying the same with you about this, when you are not president, you were for gay marriage. Then 2007, you changed your position. A couple years ago, you said you were evolving. And the evolution seems to have been something that we're discussing right now. But do you—do you see where some people might consider that the same thing, being politics?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, if you—if you look at my trajectory here, I've always been strongly in favor of civil unions. Always been strongly opposed to discrimination against gays and lesbians. I've been consistent in my overall trajectory. The one thing that—I've wrestled with is—this gay marriage issue. And—I think it'd be hard to argue that somehow this is—something that I'd be doin' for political advantage—because frankly, you know—you know, the politics, it's not clear how they cut.

In some places that are gonna be pretty important—in this electoral map—it may hurt me. But—you know, I think it—it was important for me, given how much attention this issue was getting, both here in Washington, but—elsewhere, for me to go ahead, "Let's be clear. Here's what I believe." But I'm not gonna be spending most of my time talking about this, because frankly—my job as president right now, my biggest priority is to make sure that—we're growing the economy, that we're puttin' people back to work, that we're managing the draw down in Afghanistan, effectively. Those are the things that—I'm gonna focus on. And—I'm sure there's gonna be more than enough to argue about with the other side, when it comes to—when it comes to our politics.

ROBERTS: Let's—let's talk a little bit about that. Because Mitt Romney just recently said that he deserves the credit for the revival of the U.S. auto industry. In fact, he says a lot of credit goes to him. How do you respond to that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well—you know, I think this is one of his—Etch-a-Sketch moments. I don't think anybody takes that seriously. People re—remember his position, which was, "Let's let Detroit go bankrupt" and his opposition to government—government involvement in making sure that GM and Chrysler didn't go under. And I—every businessperson and economist out there understands that at the time I had to make the decision, there was no private sector option. Nobody was opening up their wallets to lend money to GM and Chrysler.

So had we followed his advice, at that time, GM and Chrysler would have gone under. And we would have lost probably a million jobs throughout the Midwest. So the people who are in the Midwest—you know, you go take a poll of folks in Detroit who buy that argument—I don't think—they're gonna be persuaded. But this goes to—a larger issue. Which is that—there are gonna be two very different visions about how we move this country forward, how we move this economy forward, how we provide middleclass security that's been slipping away for more than a decade now.

And—Mr. Romney is basically resuscitating—all the—old dogmas of—you know, the Bush years and the Republican Party that say if we cut taxes for high—high end—individuals, that folks like him—are unconstrained by things like regulations or unions, that somehow the economy's gonna go gangbusters.

And what I believe is the free market is—the greatest force—for economic prosperity on earth. But that it only works well when we're making investments in great education for our kids, when we're rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our broadband lines, when we—are absolutely committed to—making sure that—we have a tax code that's fair and that—we're balancing our—our budgets and—and—and bringing down our deficit in a way that—that is balanced.

And we're not just cuttin' our way—particularly on those things that are gonna—like science and technology that are gonna help us grow in the future. So the—there is gonna be a fundamental difference. I think the auto example is just one of many differences that we're gonna have on the economy. And I think ultimately this is gonna be—the decisive debate that we have during the course of this election.

ROBERTS: Terrorism also—an issue, especially on the heels of the one-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden. And our top story was like—a spy novel, the double agent and—Al Qaeda is able to—fool them and come away with the so-called underwear bomb. What have you learned—the government learned about that operation and also about this type of—explosive that's very concerning to people?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, keep in mind, I was briefed on this—in April. We were on top of this the entire time. At no point w—were American lives in danger or American aircraft in danger. I'm not gonna comment on the specifics of the operation. But—I can tell you that we do have now the device in our custody. And we're evaluating it and learning lessons from it.

But—look, I—I don't think it should be any surprise. I've been very clear that—even with the death of Bin Laden, even—as weakened as Al Qaeda is—if you have a bunch of—extremists who are adamant about trying to—kill civilians that—we are gonna have to maintain constant vigilance and create a whole series of layers of protection and barriers. And—you know—fortunately, what we've seen is constant improvement on the part of our law enforcement, our military, our intelligence officers—that allows us—to be able to—prevent the kind of attack that we just saw. And—and it's an indication of success, but it's not a reason to be complacent. We're gonna have to just keep on workin' as hard as we can—to make sure that—folks don't get hurt.

ROBERTS: Mother's Day, Sasha and Malia, do you have plans for Mrs. Obama?

THE PRESIDENT: You know—you know—when I think about Michelle, I—I always remember—well, one of the early Mother's Days we had. And I—I was gripin' to the girls about how—you know, "Why do the mothers get all this attention and—and—you know, I don't—Fa—Father's Day's not such a big deal."

And—and Michelle turned to me and she said, "Listen, every day's Father's Day, buster." So the—so she deserves to be spoiled. Me and the girls are gonna be concocting some things to make sure that she knows how much we love her and how much we appreciate her. And—I'm sure there will—some aspect of it will be handmade. You know, Malia and Sasha—it's sort of like an arms race in terms of who can make the bigger, more creative card. And—they're all—gonna be all—there—there will be—all sorts of—of magic markers and pens and, you know—you know, paper strewn all over their—their rooms, I'm sure, over the next couple days.

ROBERTS: You're not gonna leave Mrs. Obama on Air Force One again, on Mother's Day or anything like that?

THE PRESIDENT: Did you see that?

ROBERTS: Yeah, I kind of did. It--

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, it was embarrassing.

ROBERTS: But you went back and got her.

THE PRESIDENT: I did. I thought she was behind me.

ROBERTS: Right, right, right, right.

THE PRESIDENT: It sounds like you've been talkin' to her. She gave—she gave me so much grief. It was—it was terrible. But—you know—I tell you, she has—obviously, done extraordinary work with—this childhood obesity issue, gettin' kids movin'. And—part of her passion is to make sure that every kid out there is gettin' the same extraordinary opportunities that our kids get—and that every kid's gettin' the same kind of love that she got from her parents. And—so—what I'm—what I'm so proud of—is how her core values as a mom, she's been able to translate—into stuff that—I think has given moms all across the country some additional tools to—to, you know—do what they care most deeply about, which is—raise wonderful kids.

ROBERTS: Lookin' forward to talkin' to her about her cookbook. But a final question since you talked about that. Did you discuss this with Mrs. Obama, the same-sex marriage issue?


ROBERTS: Was that something--

THE PRESIDENT: No, no, this is somethin' that—you know, we've talked about—you know, over the years. And—and she f—you know, she feels the same way that—she feels the same way that I do. And that is that—in the end, the—the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is—is how we treat other people.

And—you know, I—you know—you know, we—we're both—practicing Christians. And—and obviously—this position may be considered to put as at odds with—the views of—of others. But—you know, when we think about our faith, the—the thing—you know, at—at root that we think about is not only—Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf—but it's also the golden rule, you know? Treat others the way you'd want to be treated. And—and I think that's what we try to impart to our kids. And—that's what motivates me as president. And—I figure the more consistent I can be—in being true—to those precepts—the better I'll be as a dad and a husband, and—hopefully the better I'll be as a president.

ROBERTS: Mr. President, thank you very much.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Great to talk to you.

ROBERTS: You as well.

Barack Obama, Interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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