Vice President Joe Biden ignited a small fire on Sunday when he made comments supportive of gay marriage that were too close for comfort for the Obama administration’s “evolving” position on marriage equality.
“And you’re comfortable with same-sex marriage now,” NBC’s David Gregory asked Biden on Meet the Press.
“I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy,” Biden said by way of a disclaimer, then continued, “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.”
Reports immediately announced that Biden had fully endorsed marriage equality, followed quickly by efforts from the administration to squash that interpretation.
For a few minutes, reports coming from the vice president’s office and the White House were different. A spokesman for the vice president told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that Biden was discussing his personal, evolving opinion of gay marriage. Almost immediately, senior Obama adviser David Axelrod tweeted that Biden’s statement was nothing new and in line with the president’s view on gay marriage:
There are already a few interpretations of what the vice president did or did not mean by his statement. Those in favor of gay rights are pushing the interpretation that Biden effectively endorsed marriage equality, or at the very least, shifted his position closer to a full endorsement.
“If there was ever any doubt where Obama’s evolution would end, Joe Biden’s candid remarks this morning ended it. He’s where most Americans are on this. They both are,” Richard Socarides, a former Clinton aide and gay rights advocate told BuzzFeed. “And you don’t go on Meet the Press without rehearsing these answers either, so I think they are sending a message. And it’s a positive one.”
The Human Rights Campaign had a more measured response, saying in a statement that they are “encouraged by Vice President Biden’s comments, who rightly articulated that loving and committed gay and lesbian couples should be treated equally.”
“To me, his comments could not have been more direct and specific that he endorses marriage equality,” HCR Vice President for Communications Fred Sainz elaborated to TPM. “And so it’s really a shame that he is — that his comments are being modified or reinterpreted because they seemed to be perfect just the way they were.” Sainz said he felt that “most reasonable people” would have interpreted Biden’s comments as an endorsement of gay marriage.
Other liberal groups seem to agree with Sainz position. Winnie Stachelberg, the Executive Vice President for External Affairs at the Center for American Progress, commended the vice president “for supporting marriage equality,” adding that the “campaign shouldn’t force Biden’s comments back into the closet.”
But Biden’s own office walked back the vice president’s comments, or at least denied that anything new had come out of the interview. “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 rollback those rights,” a Biden spokesperson said in a statement to TPM. “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. Beyond that, the Vice President was expressing that he too is evolving on the issue, after meeting so many committed couples and families in this country.”
The administration likes to point to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” — which Biden himself noted on Meet the Press — as well as their position on DOMA to point out how much better Democrats are than Republicans on the issue of gay rights. But it’s clear that the administration is nervous about just how far they should ‘evolve,’ and pressure from the left to move towards a full endorsement of marriage equality forces the president to be blunt and specific about a tricky issue for him and his party.
“I think the country’s evolving,” Biden said of marriage equality in a 2010 interview with Good Morning America. “And I think there’s an inevitability for a national consensus on gay marriage.”
Watch Biden on NBC’s Meet the Press:
Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed to this story.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.