Vice President Joe Biden may have stopped short on Sunday of pledging that the administration will embrace same-sex marriage, but his personal support for gay rights underlined the fact that the White House has stuck to a politically safer middle ground on the issue.
“I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” Biden said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction."
Obama, by contrast, has said he supports civil unions and that his position on same-sex marriage in general is “evolving.”
The issue has become a major irritant to many of the gay rights groups that supported Obama when he ran for office in 2008. The careful choice of words places Obama in a murky gray area of support that risks alienating a key group of backers that could help him in the 2012 election. However, any step to the left of that statement could risk offending undecided voters or moderates that could be crucial to victory in battleground states nationwide.
Biden is now the highest ranking member of the Obama administration to endorse same-sex marriage, and officials in both the campaign and the White House rushed to temper and explain Biden’s comments on Sunday.
"What VP said-that all married couples should have exactly the same legal rights-is precisely POTUS's position,” Obama’s chief campaign adviser, David Axelrod, posted on Twitter shortly after Biden’s appearance.
This isn’t the first time the White House has been forced to walk back or mitigate Biden’s comments. The gaffe-prone Vice President has a tendency to speak his mind, with or without the approval of his boss.
But that’s not entirely bad for the White House. Biden’s image as a high-ranking loose cannon means that the he can act as a kind of administration id to Obama’s cautious ego. Biden’s willingness to take left-leaning positions on controversial social issues may help reassure some of Obama’s liberal base that has grown skeptical of his moderate record.
In recent weeks, Biden took a similarly progressive position on the issue of contraception in an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation. He shot back at Republican attacks on the requirement that contraception be fully covered by all employer-based insurance. Biden said flatly said he believed in: "the right of women to decide for themselves, whether or not they want to use contraception."
"I just find it remarkable that the argument is even taking place," he said. "I think it's totally out of touch with reality."
Those comments were embraced by many women’s groups and aided in Democratic efforts to align the party with women.
It is not clear that Biden’s take on same-sex marriage is working quite so well. Early responses to his statements have been mixed. Groups like Human Rights Campaign have seized on Biden’s position to step up pressure on Obama to make a definitive step to the left.
"We are encouraged by Vice President Biden's comments, who rightly articulated that loving and committed gay and lesbian couples should be treated equally,” HRC President Joe Solmonese said in a statement. “Now is the time for President Obama to speak out for full marriage equality for same-sex couples."