Gay rights advocates protest outside of a June LGBT fundraiser where Obama spoke. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
Ever since Vice President Joe Biden appeared on "Meet the Press" on Sunday and described his own journey to accepting gay marriage, President Barack Obama's campaign has been insisting that Biden's comments are "entirely consistent" with Obama's own position on the issue. The vice president's office also walked back the statements, clarifying that Biden was saying that gay married couples in states that allow it should have the same rights as straight married couples.
The vice president's exact words to David Gregory were: "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." (See his full comments here.)
Some of the top gay rights advocacy leaders in the country are skeptical, however, that Biden wasn't advocating the legalization of gay marriage in full. Biden was endorsing the legal right for same-sex couples to marry, they say, something that Obama has stopped short of doing as president. And the effort to walk back Biden's comments could backfire.
The president says he supports civil unions but not civil marriage for same-sex couples, although he has indicated that his views are "evolving." (As a state senator, he supported gay marriage.)
Some advocates told Yahoo News that Obama surrogates endorsing gay marriage is a way for the campaign to "wink" at second-term support for the policy without taking the political risk of outright embracing gay marriage in an election year. Mitt Romney has said he would pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and appoint judges who oppose gay marriage, placing himself far to the right of Obama, who helped end the military's ban on openly gay service and abandoned the Federal Defense of Marriage Act. But despite this gulf, both candidates oppose gay marriage—an uncomfortable fact when it comes to rallying the Democratic base or fundraising from passionately pro-gay rights donors.
"It seems like their strategy is to try to have it both ways on this issue," said Jimmy LaSalvia, president of the Republican gay rights group GOProud, to Yahoo News. "They know that many in their base support same-sex civil marriage, but they also know that not everyone is there yet. So it appears to be a strategy to go as far as they can short of endorsing same-sex civil marriage. And to me that indicates that it's purely a political move in this election cycle."
But not everyone thinks it's a smart political plan.
"I just think it becomes very hard for the White House to finesse this much longer," said Richard Socarides, who advised President Bill Clinton on gay rights in his second term. "We're having a national discussion about this important issue about the way we treat our citizens, and the president can't be on the sidelines."
Socarides said it's "unbelievable" to say Biden wasn't endorsing gay marriage on Sunday. In his comments, Biden added that he doesn't know whether Obama would support same-sex marriage in a second term. The vice president said his feelings changed on the subject after meeting gay families. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on MSNBC Monday morning that he also thinks same-sex couples should be legally allowed to marry, joining fellow Cabinet member HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who has also publicly backed gay marriage.
After Biden and Duncan's comments, gay rights leaders urged Obama to follow the lead of his advisers.
"The way [Biden] described now being in support of the freedom to marry is exactly …what we want to hear from the president as well," said Evan Wolfson, president of the Freedom to Marry advocacy group and a one-time intern to Sen. Biden in the 1970s. Wolfson argues that hedging on the issue doesn't make political sense—Obama voters from 2008 overwhelmingly support gay marriage, and a plurality of Americans overall do as well, according to the latest polls. (Some polls have shown a narrow majority in support.) "Efforts to split the difference, or stop short or give a wink but not say the words, don't do anything to appease the small slice of voters for whom the president will never be anti-gay enough," he said. But it "does deprive him of the energy and credit that true authenticity and support would bring."
Ken Sherrill, a Hunter College professor and pollster specializing in gay issues, tells Yahoo News that the overall trend toward popular support for gay marriage still doesn't change the fact that this election will be fought in a handful of battleground states, where gay marriage isn't always a winning issue."They're worried about North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia and so on," he said. Even though the economy—not gay rights—will dominate the election, "they have to worry about 1 or 2 percent in these swing states" who could be swayed by the issue.
Joe Solmonese, president of the gay rights group the Human Right Campaign, said in a statement on Duncan and Biden's comments that "it's time for [Obama] to speak out in favor of marriage equality as well."
But in an interview with Yahoo News, Solmonese focused on criticizing Romney rather than Obama. "I'm a lot less concerned about the distinction between the vice president and the president or any members of the president's Cabinet," Solomnese said. "I'm a lot more focused on the difference between the president and Gov. Romney."
That's the same contrast the Obama campaign is hoping to drive home. "There couldn't be a starker contrast on this issue than with Gov. Romney, who has funded efforts to roll back marriage laws in California and other places," Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod said on a conference call with reporters.
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