Why Obama Should Thank Joe Biden

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 9 2012 6:59 PM

The Audacity of Evolution

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

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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.

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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. 

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