The Audacity of Evolution

Obama could blame Biden for forcing the timing of his support for gay marriage, but he really should thank him.

Obama speaks on gay rights.
Obama discusses gay marriage during an exclusive interview on ABC News

Photograph by ABC News.

Joe Biden has such power over evolution he might make an amoeba get up and walk. Three days ago the vice president announced on Meet the Press that he supported same-sex couples getting married. Wednesday, President Obama announced that after a many-year evolution on the issue, he believed the same thing. The first African-American president became the first ever to announce his support for same-sex marriage.

This is a landmark civil rights moment that happened awfully fast. It was both an act of conviction and political expediency—what measure of each we may never know. What we do know is that this was the president’s private position. What’s less well known is the thinking behind the timing of the announcement. White House and campaign officials have been talking about it for months. According to several sources involved in the campaign, the president was going to make his announcement soon, before the convention (and maybe even very soon) if for no other reason than to avoid a fight over the party platform and to rally gay supporters. Biden stepped on his plan, making it look like the president was backing into a decision and controlled by events.   

This looks like another instance of the vice president stumbling his way into the history books. But Barack Obama’s untenable position is every bit as culpable for the firestorm and rushed decision. The president was for gay marriage in private but wouldn’t say so in public. He told the Justice Department to inform the courts that it believed the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and should be struck down. He said he was “evolving” which made it clear that it was a matter of time before he came to the enlightened position of supporting same-sex marriage (or simply announced a long-held private view that had been constrained by politics). It has been a long evolution for the president. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, he wrote that he was “open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided.” 

The administration policy on marriage equality was a jerky spasm of winks and nods. It was the domestic equivalent of the “One China Policy,” the strategic ambiguity that allows the United States to support Taiwan but not support its bid for independence, which angers China. It’s policy by omission, not commission. It’s not a policy that makes sense entirely, but it’s a nonpolicy that everyone has agreed to simply treat like it makes sense. (The agreement that Starbucks makes good coffee is the consumer product equivalent.)

The White House at first tried to pretend there was nothing new about Biden’s remarks. Campaign and administration aides said that he was being totally consistent with the president’s view. This wasn’t exactly true, but under the agreement to keep everything in limbo it might have held. This was a good storyline to get out if the president really was planning a coming announcement. Only if Biden didn’t appear to be getting out ahead of the president could the president take the leading position.

The problem, say Democrats, is that the Biden comments poked an existing bruise among the president’s supporters in the gay community. The rush to bowdlerize what Biden had said turned a glancing tap of the bruise into a grinding fist.

A source who raises money for Democrats says that Obama has mostly maxed out with donations from the gay political community, but that his Super PAC and other nonaffiliated support groups still need massive high-dollar donations. A lot of potential donors are influential members of the gay community who follow the same-sex marriage issue closely and who were likely to be most offended by the president holding on to his same, “evolving” stance. How could an Obama bundler—one of those financial backers who raises huge sums from their circle of friends—who had been convincing those same friends that the president was with them, continue to make calls with this fresh slap in the face? Says the Democratic fundraiser: “Once this became a litmus test if you’re a gay bundler, after 100 hours saying ‘the president is going to do the right thing’ now you’re calling saying ‘sorry this happened, but I can’t raise another dollar unless you do the right thing.’ ”

As a matter of narrative continuity, it was probably also a wise political move for the president to take a stand. The Obama campaign has consistently claimed that his opponent lacks a moral core; he shades and capers and doesn’t tell you what he believes in his heart. This was all true of the president’s position on gay marriage. It’s good for him to be free of that wrinkle, though narrative continuity (running a campaign that makes sense) probably has a limited affect on voters and their final choices.

What was less clear was whether the president was exercising logical continuity. Based on the limited transcripts of the interview, the president said he supported same-sex marriage but didn’t think it was a right. He said the states could continue to handle the issue as they saw fit. Forty-four states right now do not allow it. Under this same line of thinking, in 1967 he would have supported the right for interracial couples to marry but would have thought Virginia had a right not to allow it.

Shortly after Obama’s comments, Mitt Romney reasserted his opposition to same-sex marriage and took the opportunity to point out that he had never wavered in that stance. Republican organizer Ralph Reed said the president’s “flip-flop” on gay marriage would doom him. It’s certain the president just helped Mitt Romney consolidate his base. How it will play in the wider electorate is less clear. The latest Pew Research Center survey found that Americans back same-sex marriage 47 to 43. The decision will turn off working-class voters but perhaps energize younger voters and college-educated suburban voters.

The political machinations of the moment were fascinating—what will this mean to Hispanics in North Carolina?—but this election is not going to turn on same-sex marriage. Romney wants to keep focused on the economy. The president wants to divert from certain conversations about the economy but not to this issue. 

A lot of people have been comparing this election to the 2004 race. Today, they get another data point. During that election, President Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. According to White House sources at the time, it was an effort to stir the conservative GOP base in what the president and his team knew would be a close election. Obama’s support for gay marriage may not have been aimed at getting the base excited as much as keeping some of its influential members from being angry. That anger would have been far more muted had it not been for Joe Biden. The president could blame his No. 2, but since Biden led to the culmination of Obama’s evolutionary journey and put him on the right side of history, perhaps the president should thank him.