Biden would come to argue that the federal government should recognize same-sex unions from states that had legalized them, but did not campaign on repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, as Obama did. As vice president, Biden was often a voice of caution about the political risk of moving too quickly around issues of sexual politics, especially when they threatened to put the White House in tension with Catholic leadership and churchgoers.
By the time of Biden’s Sunday show surprise in May 2012, Obama had been moving toward his own switch on marriage, unlike his vice president methodically and deliberately approaching the problem of how to pull it off.
In the summer of 2009, Obama had first indicated — in a meeting with White House attorneys attended by Biden and his then-and-now chief of staff Ron Klain — that he was willing to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court if the lawyers could build a credible legal foundation for such a move. In late 2010, Obama told journalists that his “feelings are constantly evolving” about same-sex marriage, and soon took substantive steps to advance the cause, backing then-Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to no longer stand behind a statute he determined was unconstitutional. (Congressional Republicans took over the litigation.) The Justice Department announcement, in February 2011, did little to draw sustained media attention or agitation from the right, an indication that over the years Obama had been in the White House the issue had been drained of its earlier intensity.
That summer, Obama decided he was ready to say he now supported state-level efforts to legalize such unions, according to interviews with top government and campaign personnel conducted for my book The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage. They did not think such a declaration would be costless, as it could jeopardize his ability to again carry North Carolina, where voters were poised to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in May 2012. But Obama’s strategists concluded he could accrue greater political benefit within his coalition. One notable dissenter was Biden, who did not resist the policy change but quarreled with the timing: Do that after they reelect you, Biden advised Obama, futilely.
Exactly when and where to make the announcement without distracting from other strategic objectives proved an election calendar puzzle. White House and campaign advisers eventually settled on a plan for him to do so live on ABC’s talk show “The View” while on a late-spring fundraising trip to New York. (Research shared within the West Wing indicated Obama’s talk of “evolution” on the issue would be most persuasive with a female interviewer; no research measured the impact of four female interviewers.)
That scheme was scuttled when, just weeks ahead of Obama’s planned reversal, Biden was asked on camera if his views on marriage had “evolved.” The “Meet the Press” interview was taped approximately 36 hours before it would air on the morning of Sunday, May 6, and as soon as a transcript reached Obama’s team many of his closest aides read it as a betrayal of Biden’s role as junior partner. They publicly insisted otherwise — the official White House line was that Biden had not said anything new, and the two men did not differ at all on marriage policy — but the media treated such spin incredulously.
Biden’s words dominated Monday’s press briefing and remained in the news when the next day North Carolina voters decided overwhelmingly to ban same-sex unions. (It would be the last state ever to do so.) By Wednesday, Obama’s advisers agreed it was now impossible to stick with the original plan, and that Obama had to make his announcement immediately.
That afternoon, Obama sat for a quickly arranged interview with ABC News. “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded,” he told the network’s Robin Roberts, “that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Obama talked about his “evolution on the issue,” and the important role his teenage daughters had played in leading him to reconsider his previous view that civil unions offered sufficient protection for gay and lesbian families. It was exactly what Obama had intended to say a few weeks later; after 100 hours of public and private drama, Biden had merely changed the ABC program that claimed the exclusive. “He probably got out a little bit over his skis, but out of generosity and spirit,” Obama told Roberts. “Would I have preferred to have done this in my own way, in my own terms, without there being a lot of notice to everybody? Sure. But all’s well that ends well.”
Obama’s announcement had an impact that exceeded the most optimistic expectations of his advisers. It spurred a fundraising bonanza from small-dollar donors, bringing in $1 million in the first 90 minutes, and a volume of positive press coverage he rarely matched again during the campaign. Few Republicans wanted to make much of it; the party’s presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney called marriage a “tender and sensitive topic” that he suggested was not relevant to the campaign. “Everyone in the reelect was bracing for the evangelical backlash,” campaign finance director Rufus Gifford told me, “and it didn’t really happen.”
In the popular telling, Biden’s plainspoken candor had forced the cautious president into valorous action, converting the vice president into something of a folk hero among lefty activists. As he and Obama campaigned for reelection, Biden came to embrace his position as the ticket’s leading edge on LGBTQ issues. On a visit to Provincetown, Mass., he thanked gay and lesbian advocates for “freeing the soul of the American people” and in Florida told the mother of a concerned transgender child that anti-trans discrimination is the “civil rights issue of our time,” then a strikingly farsighted assessment.