Why Obama Should Thank Joe Biden

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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.

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.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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." 

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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.

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