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By Lisa Keen
WASHINGTON D.C. – Responding earnestly to a question, Vice President Joe Biden has hoisted personal and legal support for same-sex marriages back into the presidential campaign.
Biden told a nationally televised news show May 6 that he is “absolutely comfortable” with the existence of same-sex marriage, adding that “men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”
The comment drew quick praise from LGBT leaders, who uniformly also expressed their desire to hear President Obama make similar remarks. And it turned a metaphorical spotlight back on President Obama’s tightrope walk between support for repealing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and support for full legal marriage equality. While President Obama has vigorously supported the repeal of DOMA and has spoken in opposition to bans on same-sex marriage in California and North Carolina, he and his administration have not made any explicit statements in support of legal marriage equality in the states. And, the president has eschewed opportunities to share what his personal comfort level is with same-sex marriage. And his hesitancy on these latter two points has become a lingering rough spot between the president and the LGBT community, despite a record that clearly outshines all other presidents.
By the next morning, many political talking heads were weighing in on when they thought President Obama would make a statement of comfort with the idea of same-sex partners marrying, most speculating it would not come until after the November presidential election.
On one of those Monday morning news shows, Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was asked, not whether he was comfortable with same-sex marriages, but whether he thinks same-sex couples should be able to marry as a matter of law. Duncan responded, “Yes, I do,” taking essentially the same position as Biden.
Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and Mark Halperin, a frequent commentator, speculated the president is hesitating to announce support for marriage equality or comfort with same-sex marriage. They, and others, think Obama needs to stay silent on those matters in order to hold onto his tenuous support in some important southern states, such as Virginia and North Carolina, as well as big electoral states, such as Ohio.
Following Biden’s remarks in response to a question on NBC’s Meet the Press program, the mainstream media immediately began trying to determine whether Biden was paving the way for more supportive statements on marriage from President Obama or whether Biden was simply “veering off script” (as NBC speculated).
CNN media commentator Howard Kurtz wrote in a DailyBeast.com blog, “There is absolutely no question that Biden’s response was cleared by the White House. Vice presidents are not allowed to freelance on talk shows, especially on such a sensitive issue. So Obama was sending out Biden to further mollify the gay community without having to actually take a stand himself.”
But the New York Daily News suggested that, “Gaffe-prone Vice President Joe Biden may have struck again by saying he was ‘absolutely comfortable’ with gay marriage, a position his boss has not publicly supported.”
The New York Times pointed out that the White House scrambled “to clarify that Mr. Biden was not articulating an official change in policy, a reaction that highlighted the administration’s unease over the subject.” But it also noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called the rights of gays “human rights” and that President Obama then later “enthusiastically endorsed” that idea. Biden’s statement, said the Times, is “raising the possibility that Mr. Obama is relying on aides to telegraph his intentions to avoid the political consequences of articulating them himself.”
The Times noted that “The White House denied that Mr. Biden was acting as a surrogate for the president, saying that Mr. Biden’s views, influenced by gay friends and fund-raisers, had changed and that, with characteristic candor, he was willing to volunteer them at length.”
The vice president’s office issued a statement following Biden’s remarks Sunday that did almost nothing to clear the confusion.
“The vice president was saying what the president has said previously; that committed and loving same-sex couples deserve the same rights and protections enjoyed by all Americans, and that we oppose any effort to roll back those rights,” said the statement.
But in fact, President Obama has not previously expressed proactive legal support for same-sex marriage equality. Gay legal experts Mary Bonauto, Kate Kendall, and Jon Davidson said he and his administration have made no such statements in person or in court documents. Evan Wolfson of the Freedom to Marry group said Obama and his administration have made “not explicitly” stated support for marriage equality. But Wolfson said the administration’s “refutation of the opposition’s proffered rationales for DOMA; acknowledging the existence, strengths, and needs of same-sex couples and their families, etc., certainly also makes the case for the freedom to marry.”
And it’s worth noting that, although President Obama has famously held that his personal feelings on same-sex marriage were “evolving,” he has stood up for equal treatment of LGBT people under the law.
The latest political dust up began on Meet the Press, when host David Gregory noted the President Obama “has said his views on gay marriage, on same-sex marriage, have evolved, but he’s opposed to it. You’re opposed to it. Have your views evolved?”
Biden voted for DOMA when he was in the U.S. Senate in 1996, but during his brief presidential campaign in 2008, his website indicated he supported same-sex marriages.
“Look,” said Biden, “I just think that the good news is that, as more and more Americans have come to understand, that what this is is a simple proposition: Who do you love? Who do you love? And will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out that all marriages at their root are all about. Whether they are marriages of lesbians, or gay men, or heterosexuals.”
“Is that what you believe now?” asked Gregory.
“That’s what I believe.”
“And you’re comfortable with same-sex marriage now?”
“Look, I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.”
“In a second term, will this administration come out behind same-sex marriage – the institution of marriage?” asked Gregory.
“Well, I can’t speak to that,” said Biden. “I don’t know the answer to that. But I can tell you…”
Gregory interrupted, “It sounds like you’d like to see it happen if the president gets–”
“The president continues to fight,” interrupted Biden, “whether it’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or whether it is making sure across the board that you cannot discriminate. Look at the executive orders he’s put in place. Any hospital that gets federal funding, which is almost all of them, they can’t deny a partner from being able to have access to their partner’s who’s ill, or making a call on whether or not they, you know–this is evolving.
(Biden mischaracterized a memorandum President Obama signed to prohibit federally funded hospitals from denying visitation to gay partners. It was not an executive order.)
“And by the way,” continued Biden, “my measure, David, and I take a look at when things really begin to change, is when the social culture changes. I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far. And I think people fear that which is different. Now, they’re beginning to understand, they’re beginning to understand that this, at it’s base….
Biden then jumped to an anecdote.
“I was speaking to a group of gay leaders in Los Angeles two weeks ago and one gentleman looked at me in the question period, and said, ‘Let me ask you: How do you feel about us?’ And I had just walked in the back door of this gay couple and their two adopted children. And I turned to the man who owned the house, and I said, ‘What did I do when I walked in?’ He said, ‘You walked right to my children, they were seven and five, giving you flowers…And I said I wish every American could see the look in those eyes and they wouldn’t have any doubt what this is about.”
Chad Griffin, who becomes president of the Human Rights Campaign next month, told the Washington Post that it was he who posed the question to Biden in Los Angeles.
Current HRC President Joe Solmonese said his group is encouraged by Biden’s remarks, but added, “Now is the time for President Obama to speak out for full marriage equality for same-sex couples.”
Jerame Davis, head of National Stonewall Democrats, suggested Biden’s remarks were “not a direct endorsement of marriage equality” but said they were “promising.”
“What we really need now,” said Davis, “is for President Obama to take a stand in support of the freedom to marry and bring to bear the full weight of his Administration to make it reality.”
Freedom to Marry’s Wolfson, who interned for Biden in the Senate in 1976, said, “The personal and thoughtful way he has spoken about his coming to support the freedom to marry reflects the same journey that a majority of Americans have now made as they’ve gotten to know gay families, opened their hearts and changed their minds.”
“President Obama,” said Wolfson, “should join the Vice President, former Presidents Clinton and Carter, former Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney, Laura Bush, and so many others in forthright support for the freedom to marry.”