Did Biden Make News on Marriage Equality?

Comments made by Vice President Joe Biden on “Meet the Press” this morning –– that “what people are finding out what all marriages at their root are about… is who do you love and will you be loyal to the person you love?” –– have set off a storm of chatter in gay and political circles, but do his words signal a fundamental change in Obama administration policy or, at least, in the number two office in the land?

Clarifications coming from the vice president’s office and from President Barack Obama’s reelection team insist that the answer is no.

“What VP said –– that all married couples should have exactly the same legal rights –– is precisely POTUS’s position,” tweeted David Axelrod, communications director for the reelection campaign, just moments after Biden’s comments were aired. POTUS is a Washington-speak acronym for President of the United States.

A subsequent statement from Biden’s office said, “The vice president was saying what the president has said previously –– that committed and loving same-sex couples deserve the same rights and protections enjoyed by all Americans, and that we oppose any effort to roll back those rights. That’s why we stopped defending the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in legal challenges and support legislation to repeal it.”

In early 2011, the Justice Department, in a finding endorsed by the president, concluded that the federal government’s failure to recognize valid marriages by same-sex couples violates their equal protection rights guaranteed by the US Constitution.

The vice president, his office insisted following his “Meet the Press” appearance, “is evolving on the issue,” a word Obama has used over and over to express his attitude toward marriage equality.

The buzz emerged from answers Biden gave when “Meet the Press” host David Gregory, after noting that he and Obama “are opposed” to marriage equality,” asked, “Have your views evolved?”

The vice president responded, “The good news is that as more and more Americans come to understand what this is all about is a simple proposition. Who do you love? Who do you love and will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out is what all marriages at their root are about. Whether they’re marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.”

Apparently interpreting that answer as a new position, Gregory asked, “Is that what you believe now?,” to which Biden responded, “That’s what I believe.”

Gregory pushed further, asking, “You’re comfortable with same-sex marriage now?”

At that point, Biden made clear he is not the administration official authorized to articulate a change in posture on such a high-profile issue.

“Look, I am vice president of the United States of America,” he said. “The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men marrying women 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.”

Gregory next asked whether the Obama administration, should it win a second term, would “come out behind same-sex marriage, the institution of marriage.”

“I can’t speak to that,” Biden responded. “I don’t know the answer to that.”

The host was unwilling to leave the issue there.

“It sounds like you’d like to see it happen,” Gregory said.

“Well, the president continues to fight –– whether it’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or whether it’s making sure across the board that you cannot discriminate,” Biden responded, before spelling out the steps the administration took to ensure that same-sex couples have the right to visit their spouses or partners in hospitals.

“This is evolving,” the vice president concluded.

In an Obama campaign press call on May 7, Axelrod argued that the administration’s position in opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act and in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act made clear the president supports federal recognition of gay marriages from states where they are legal.

In announcing Obama’s support for the Respect for Marriage Act in July 2011, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “This legislation would uphold the principle that the federal government should not deny gay and lesbian couples the same rights and legal protections as straight couples.”

Hours after Axelrod made his argument to the media, Carney found himself under the gun in his Monday daily press briefing. In a 45-minute exchange with reporters, more than a dozen of them pressed him to explain how the vice president’s comments did not break new ground and when the president would clarify his own thinking.

In a press release immediately after Biden’s Sunday appearance, Freedom to Marry, a nationwide marriage equality group, offered the strongest possible interpretation of the vice president’s comments on “Meet the Press,” saying they did represent a significant shift.

“Biden told host David Gregory that he is ‘absolutely comfortable’ with gay couples having the freedom to marry,” the group said in a written release.

Freedom to Marry’s president, Evan Wolfson, said, “The personal and thoughtful way he has spoken about his coming to support the freedom to marry reflects the same journey that a majority of Americans have now made as they’ve gotten to know gay families, opened their hearts, and changed their minds. President Obama should join the vice president, former Presidents Clinton and Carter, former Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney, Laura Bush, and so many others in forthright support for the freedom to marry.”

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, was more measured in his written response.

“We are encouraged by Vice President Biden’s comments, who rightly articulated that loving and committed gay and lesbian couples should be treated equally,” he said. “Now is the time for President Obama to speak out for full marriage equality for same-sex couples.”

However, in an interview with Metro Weekly, an LGBT newspaper in Washington, DC, Chad Griffin, HRC’s incoming president, pushed back at administration efforts to walk back the implications of the vice president’s comments.

“Is there even a question?,” he said, about Biden’s “belief in marriage equality… Only in Washington and in politics could someone attempt to parse the words of what the vice president” said.

The president has, on occasion, also voiced comfort with marriage equality advances across the nation and spoken up against efforts, such as Proposition 8 in California, to repeal gains already won.

As Metro Weekly reported last June, Obama, in a press conference just days after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the gay marriage law here, said, “What I’ve seen happening over the last several years, and what happened in New York last week, I think, was a good thing. Because what you saw was the people of New York having a debate, talking through these issues. It was contentious, it was emotional, but ultimately they made a decision to recognize civil marriages, and I think that’s exactly how things should work.”