More than a year after Obama said he was ‘evolving,’ Biden’s remarks prompted president to come out for marriage sooner than he planned
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s evolution on gay marriage unfolded at a Darwinian pace, like that of the giant tortoise. For more than a year — eons in politics — he danced up to the edge of endorsing it, always stopping short, still “evolving.”
Until very recently, much of the betting was on Obama taking a pass on the touchy issue until after the election. Why pick that fight now?
On Wednesday, May 9, he picked it. Obama gave a heads-up to a spiritual adviser, among others, and staked his position in a TV interview as the first president to declare himself in favor of same-sex marriage rights.
Obama doesn’t have the power to make same-sex marriage legal. But by taking a stand, he closed the loop with gay-rights activists who are important financiers and supporters of his re-election campaign while putting himself on a potentially perilous path with voters in states such as North Carolina. That state backed him in 2008 but voted solidly Tuesday to ban gay marriage in the state constitution. And it hosts the Democratic National Convention in September.
As told by aides, Obama concluded earlier this year that gay couples should have the legal right to marry and planned to say so before the convention. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House conversations, they said the White House felt compelled to accelerate its plans after Vice President Joe Biden declared his support for gay marriage on a Sunday morning talk show and said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex couples being legally wed.
Then on Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a longtime friend and basketball buddy of the president, stirred the pot further. Asked on a morning show whether he believed same-sex couples should legally be allowed to marry, Duncan said simply, “Yes, I do.”
To outsiders, an element of orchestration seemed apparent — a softening of the ground before Obama stepped forward. After all, Biden has spoken out of turn before — as when he asserted during the 2009 swine flu outbreak that he would keep his family off airplanes and subways altogether — and the White House has some practice cleaning up after such remarks.
But aides said Biden’s comment was impromptu. He taped his appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press on Friday, May 4, and top officials said they and the president were quickly made aware that the vice president went further than Obama ever had on the issue. While officials said Obama was not angry with Biden, he decided that his vice president’s remarks made it difficult to keep his own views private for much longer.
After Biden’s interview was broadcast Sunday morning, May 6, gay-rights advocates swiftly proclaimed him to be the highest-ranking U.S. official to endorse gay marriage publicly and pressed the president anew to do the same.
The White House and Obama campaign struggled to manage the fallout. Biden’s office released a statement insisting the vice president had not broken ranks with Obama. David Axelrod, a senior campaign adviser, chimed in on Twitter, saying Biden and Obama shared the view that all married couples should have the same legal rights.
White House press secretary Jay Carney’s daily briefing Monday afternoon was dominated by questions about the president’s position on gay marriage and whether he had become increasingly isolated on the issue within his own administration. “He, as you know, said that his views on this were evolving, and I don’t have an update for you on that,” an exasperated Carney said.
By Tuesday morning, Obama and his aides concluded that they couldn’t contain the matter any longer. They started putting a plan in motion for Obama to embrace gay marriage in a television interview, which is how they had always planned for him to break the news. North Carolina’s vote for the ban that night added urgency, for Democrats outside the White House if not inside.
Ed Rendell, a former Pennsylvania governor and Democratic chairman, voiced that urgency before the expected victory of anti-gay-marriage forces in North Carolina came to pass. He said on TV Tuesday that Obama should “man up” and make his position known.
On Wednesday, Obama called the Rev. Joel Hunter, who prays often with the president, and told him what he was doing.
Hunter, an evangelical pastor and founder of the 15,000-member Northland church in the Orlando, Fla., area, told The Associated Press they spoke for about 15 minutes. “I said I disagreed with this decision,” he said. “I said, more precisely, ‘This is not how I read Scripture,’ and he totally understood that. In the end, he was doing what he believed was right, what he thinks is authentic for him at this time in his life.”
Hunter said the president acknowledged the decision could make it difficult for clergy to defend him in the face of criticism from Christian conservatives over a number of issues. “Those of us who love him and have invested into his life, he’s very aware that this costs us something and that’s something that I think weighs on him,“ Hunter said. “I don’t abandon people because I don’t agree with their decisions. But there will absolutely be blowback from his personal decision.”
To be sure, Obama’s shifting body language has been obvious for a long time, even if the words were not there.
In 2010, he told liberal bloggers “it’s pretty clear where the trend lines are going” on gay marriage rights. Soon after he began speaking of “evolving” away from his position in favor of civil unions but not formal marriage rights.
In June 2011, he praised the decision in New York state to legalize same-sex marriage and spoke at a news conference of a “profound recognition” in the country that gays must be treated like every other American.
But as for his own views, he was still evolving.
“I’ll keep on giving you the same answer until I give you a different one,” he said when pressed. “All right? And that won’t be today.”
That night, Obama held a reception at the White House for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. Author and sex columnist Dan Savage attended, wearing a button that said “Evolve Already.”
On Wednesday, that different answer came, and one evolution was complete.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 11, 2012.