Joe Biden probably owes Jay Carney a bottle of wine, or at least an apology card.
In the wake of Biden's assertion that he is "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage on Sunday's episode of Meet the Press and a similar comment from Arne Duncan on Monday morning, reporters pounced on the White House press secretary during his press conference yesterday, desperately trying to transmute the officials' remarks into some long-awaited clarity on Obama's gay-marriage stance.
It's a circus, yes, and journalists could be making better use of their time by educating readers about the numerous substantive policy differences between President Obama and Mitt Romney. But there's a reason Biden's comment turned into a media microflare: it highlights the extreme incoherence of Obama's position on gay marriage.
It's worth pointing out, before diving into the specifics, that Romney is even more muddled on this issue than Obama. As Obama's staff is feverishly pointing out, Romney has been all over the place on gay rights. During a December GOP-primary debate, he said that while he was against gay marriage he was "firmly in support of people not being discriminated against based upon their sexual orientation." And yet just a few months prior, he had signed a pledge advanced by the far-right anti-gay National Organization for Marriage calling for legislators to, among other things, pass a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
This is just a few feet in what has been lights years' worth of zigzagging for Romney on gay rights. As far as anyone can tell, he doesn't really have a stance on the issue, and has been pandering for decades. So in the context of the campaign, it's unfair to single Obama out for incoherence.
Still, Obama's the president, and gay marriage remains a divisive, hot-button issue, and his stance on it makes no sense. To review: Obama is, overall, pro–gay rights. At the risk of overgeneralization, let's say his presidency has been generally well reviewed by gay-rights advocates, with whom he gained serious capital by repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, ordering the Department of Justice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, and beefing up the ability of same-sex partners to visit each other in the hospital and designate each other as surrogate decision makers.
He's made it clear, in short, that he views this as a civil-rights issue. But as president (and as a presidential candidate), he's never come out in support of gay marriage. "My feelings about this are constantly evolving," he said in late 2010, explaining that he was in favor of civil unions but not marriages. "This is something that we're going to continue to debate, and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward."
But it hasn't always been such a struggle for him. As Richard Kim, an editor for The Nation, pointed out in 2009, when Obama ran for state Senate in Illinois in 1996, he was a full-blown supporter of gay marriage. Since then, he has "'evolved' rightward," as Kim put it yesterday.
No one can look inside Obama's head, of course. But the most likely resolution to this mystery is that he simply hasn't been honest about his stance on gay marriage. That is, he supports it, but he doesn't think he can afford to make this support public. How else to explain the pretzel-like logic undergirding his stance? Find me another left-leaning former constitutional law professor and community organizer who (1) believes gay equality is a civil-rights issue, and (2) believes gay equality should be handled at the state level (a stance Carney reinforced on Monday). It makes no sense. Obama, who came of age politically with the echoes of the civil-rights fights of the 1960s still ringing, should know how these claims sound to gay Americans and their allies.
Kim says it best: "The further up the political food chain Obama went, the more he concluded that being adamantly pro-gay wasn't to his electoral benefit. In other words, his current view isn't a product of evolution so much as it is of intelligent design."
Now this isn't a capital political offense. Every president has prevaricated about his personal beliefs on controversial subjects. And there's a strong political case to be made for Obama's stance—he and his advisers clearly think that he has nothing to gain by supporting gay marriage outright, not when they can sidestep the issue and still make substantive progress on gay rights. And, faced as they are by an opponent who is not going to have an easy time turning out evangelical Christians, now probably isn't the time to stir up that particular hornet's nest.
But if Obama is lucky enough to get reelected, it will be very interesting to see if he will finally "evolve" and become coherent—or, for the cynics among us, honest—on gay marriage.