December 2, 2023

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When Biden met the press

Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from Lauren Egan and Allie Bice.  

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Few debates, politicians and media moments are as historically intertwined as JOE BIDEN and the interview he gave to NBC’s “Meet The Press” on May 6, 2012, during which he publicly expressed comfort with same-sex marriage.

Looking back, the moment resembles a tree ring of sorts, not just for progress on the same-sex marriage fight, or the evolution of political media, but for Biden’s own transformation from an a Irish Catholic throwback to a leader of the modern Democratic Party.

The interview was pre-taped on a Friday. BETSY FISCHER MARTIN, the executive producer of “Meet the Press” at the time, recalled for West Wing Playbook how Biden came in through the loading dock, past the dumpsters in the back of the old NBC studio on Nebraska Ave. in D.C.

BARACK OBAMA had announced his reelection campaign that very weekend, which largely dictated the direction of the show. Then-host DAVID GREGORY pressed Biden on the state of the economy, recession fears, the threat of China, and whether Biden would actually remain on the ticket. Some 2,200 words were uttered before the topic of same-sex marriage came up (though Gregory and his team had prepared to ask about it).

Biden’s answer now seems quaint: “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.”

But it set off a cascading political effect that led, in part, to Tuesday’s signing of the Respect for Marriage Act.

Just not at that exact moment.

After the interview was done, Fischer Martin recalled, Biden posed for pictures, shook hands, and left the way he came in, seemingly unaware of the domino he’d just knocked over.

“There was no immediate cleanup on the floor,” she said “I don’t recall any hand wringing in the studio.”

The “Meet the Press” crew, by contrast, knew it had something newsy. But they, too, didn’t fully comprehend the extent of it. “I don’t think we had an appreciation for how big or historical it would be,” Fischer Martin said.

The real appreciation set in when the White House discovered Biden’s answer.

Obama aides were not pleased, to put it mildly, as documented in SASHA ISSENBERG’s seminal work, “The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle over Same-Sex Marriage.” They’d been looking at having Obama make his own evolution-of-views announcement on the daytime talk show, “The View,” in mid-May. Biden, moreover, had been the one warning Obama that embracing same-sex marriage could cost the ticket politically with Catholic voters.

Administration officials back-channeled to CHUCK TODD, who was set to be on the “Meet the Press” panel following Biden’s interview (the panel was being broadcast live that Sunday), in an attempt at cleanup. It didn’t work. The next day, then-press secretary JAY CARNEY made more than 50 different attempts to explain how the president and vice president were — as he insisted — on the same page.

Within days, White House officials had arranged Obama’s own interview so that he could publicly endorse same-sex marriage.

In his book “Promise Me, Dad,” Biden conceded he “got out ahead of the president” but said Obama never upbraided him for it. Instead, he described the moment as almost cosmic. I felt incredibly proud that day to have played some role in the gay marriage decision,” he wrote. “I thought of Beau, who as attorney general of Delaware made a point of attending a same-sex wedding on July 1, 2013, the day marriage equality was implemented in our state.”

For Fischer Martin, it was one of the more memorable interviews in a tenure filled with many. But it was also a relic: A vice president doing a 40-minute Sunday show interview whose news value holds for days. Watching it now, it’s a time capsule just ten-and-a-half-years old but somewhat unrecognizable.

“The way things move right now, you can book somebody on a Monday and the world is a totally different place on Friday,” she said.

The “Meet the Press” interview itself was not responsible for the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act. That honor goes to the decades of unrepentant activism spearheaded by a wide swath of leaders, many of whom weren’t around to see the bill signed.

But a few major figures did contribute insider assistance to that outsider’s game. And, next to names like TIM GILL, ROBERTA KAPLAN, KEN MEHLMAN, ANTHONY KENNEDY, TAMMY BALDWIN, GAVIN NEWSOM (who famously issued same-sex marriage licenses in San Francisco in 2004 while he was mayor) and others, stands Biden, largely for meeting the press that Sunday in May.

MESSAGE US Are you ANTHONY KENNEDY?  We want to hear from you! And we’ll keep you anonymous. Email us at [email protected]

Who was the first president to fly in a jet specifically built for the commander-in-chief?

FAUX PAS: The first lady’s office called out the wedding fashion e-commerce site, “Over the Moon,” for using a picture of NAOMI BIDEN on its homepage to sell “The Tess Gloves” by New York City-based PATRICIA VOTO.

“The company did not have permission to use Naomi’s likeness or White House imagery for any type of advertisement,” communications director ELIZABETH ALEXANDER told West Wing Playbook. “The ad has been taken down.”

The website boasts that the gloves were recently worn by Biden’s granddaughter “who wore the sheer opera-length style to her reception at the White House. Suffice it to say, in the world of weddings, the gloves are back on.”

WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: The latest numbers regarding inflation. According to Washington Post economic columnist HEATHER LONG: “Inflation rose 7.1% in November (y/y). That’s down from 9.1% in June but still far above the 2% target. Encouraging signs inflation is slowing: Gas, energy and used car prices fell in November. Overall, prices rose 0.1% in Nov, which is slower than 0.4% in Sept and Oct.”

WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: This piece by NBC News’ JULIA AINSLEY and JACOB SOBOROFF about how the White House is “solidifying plans to slash the number of migrants who would qualify for asylum at the southern border while opening up new, narrow pathways for some would-be migrants to apply while still in their home countries.”

Homeland Security Secretary ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS did not deny that a so-called “transit ban” is being considered, a policy the reporters note “was first put into practice by President DONALD TRUMP’s hard-line immigration adviser STEPHEN MILLER.”

SPOTTED: At a VP holiday party last night where KAMALA HARRIS and second gentleman DOUG EMHOFF hosted state and local officials at their residence: actress SHERYL LEE RALPH from ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” and her husband Pennsylvania State Sen. VINCENT HUGHES, Tennessee State Sen. RAUMESH AKBARI, Michigan Lt. Gov. GARLIN GILCHRIST, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. MANDELA BARNES, Birmingham Mayor RANDALL WOODFIN, Michigan State Rep. MARI MANOOGIAN, Oklahoma State Rep. AJAY PITTMAN, San Francisco district attorney BROOKE JENKINS and Harris County (Texas) Judge LINA HIDALGO.

GETTING IN THE SPIRIT: KATHLEEN BUHLE, the president’s former daughter-in-law and HUNTER BIDEN’s ex-wife, posted a video on Instagram about setting up her holiday decorations alone.

“I think it would’ve been hard for me to realize a couple of years ago that if I had seen a single lady in the Christmas tree lot, I would’ve said, ‘Aw, that poor thing.’ And now I’m like, ‘Oof, look at me, livin’ my life.’ So, keep the faith, life is good, singlehood is the bomb.” More details from People Magazine’s BRENTON BLANCHET.

FIRST IN WEST WING PLAYBOOK: KASANDRA NEGRETE is now special assistant to NELLIE LIANG, the under secretary for domestic finance at the Treasury Department, DANIEL LIPPMAN has learned. She is a former public policy fellow at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.  

JOHN RIZZO is leaving the Treasury Department in the coming weeks. He has served as senior spokesperson and public affairs lead on crypto assets, fintech, financial stability, domestic finance and economic policy, Lippman has also learned. Rizzo is an alum of Democratic Sens. CHUCK SCHUMER (N.Y.) and BOB CASEY (Pa.)

END OF AN ERA?: The Biden administration is gearing up for the end of the Covid-19 public health emergency, even as cases are rising across the country, our KRISTA MAHR and DANIEL PAYNE report. The White House Covid response coordinator, Ashish Jha, said during a Health Affairs event Tuesday that the administration is talking to state and local officials about tackling the increase in cases. Yet, “in the background — and not so far in the background — we have a group of people on our team who are thinking about the transition,” he said.

ALL ABOUT THAT FUSION POWER: The Department of Energy announced on Tuesday a major development: its scientists were able to produce the first ever fusion reaction that yielded more energy than the reaction required. Our PETER BEHR reports it reflects one step forward for commercial fusion power, which plays a huge part of the administration’s larger clear energy efforts.

China casts long shadow over US-Africa Leaders Summit (AP’s Aamer Madhani and Lolita C. Baldor)

‘It’s All So Unsettled’: 2024 Is the Year of Known Unknowns (Jonathan Martin for POLITICO Magazine)

Exclusive: US finalizing plans to send Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine (CNN’s Barbara Starr)

President JOHN F. KENNEDY in 1962 was the first president to fly “in a jet specifically built for presidential use — a modified Boeing 707,” according to The White House website.

A CALL OUT — Do you think you have a harder trivia question? Send us your best one about the presidents with a citation and we may feature it.

Edited by Eun Kyung Kim and Sam Stein, with special thanks to Paul Demko.