Obama evolves, with a nudge from Biden

Vice President Joe Biden was accused of committing another gaffe the other day when he declared on a Sunday television talk showthat he was "absolutely comfortable" with the idea of same-sex marriage. His crime supposedly was that he embarrassed his boss, President Barack Obama, who was fence-straddling on the issue, saying only that his position was "evolving."

But the fact was, Mr. Biden did Mr. Obama a favor by creating a political situation in which the president was obliged to get off that fence and join his vice president on the side of the issue he was hinting at for a long time. Mr. Obama's political and personal history and his instincts had already tipped his hat in that direction. Continuing to waffle only made matters worse for him.

Belatedly, the president can restore some of the confidence in him among liberal Democrats who have been disappointed in his tendency to favor pragmatism over principle, and who have viewed his recent caution as timidity. Whether intentionally or not, Mr. Biden's so-called gaffe seems quickly to have opened Mr. Obama's eyes to the peril of being perceived as dodging presidential leadership.

Vice presidents historically are supposed to keep their own mouths shut when it comes to any policy differences with the man in the Oval Office. That edict reduced most early occupants of the second constitutional office to toadies and empty suits in the conduct of their administration's policies.

Even in recent years, when vice presidents like Walter Mondale, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden have been give substantial governing roles by their presidents, they have stopped short of biting the hands that fed them.

These vice presidents have routinely abided by the understanding that if they had any differences with their presidents, they were free to air them directly in private. They could do so at weekly lunches with their bosses at the White House, but never outside it.

Mr. Biden's support of same-sex marriage was voiced as a personal view, demonstrating the same freewheeling style that marked his long career in public life. The Obama political team was well aware of it when Mr. Biden was selected to run with him in 2008.

In agreeing to run with Mr. Obama then, Mr. Biden insisted that he be given an active role in the administration if elected. He has often said since then he was free to express his differences internally, but that once a presidential decision was made, he understood it was his responsibility to support it.

That agreement clearly held in the internal White House debate over surging 30,000 additional American troops into Afghanistan in 2009. Mr. Biden originally opposed the surge but eventually supported it when Mr. Obama agreed to refocus U.S. policy there more on counterterrorism than on counterinsurgency.

On the same-sex marriage question, Mr. Obama had repeatedly said he was weighing his own stand, which went as far as supporting same-sex civil unions and all the legal rights entailed, but short of endorsing institutional marriage. Mr. Biden took that step for himself only, but it inevitably required Mr. Obama to complete his "evolution."

The jury is out as to what the political ramifications will be for the president in the November election. Much has already been made of the many gay givers and contribution bundlers to the Obama campaign pleased by his decision, and of polls showing public attitudes also evolving in favor of same-sex marriage. At the same time, 31 states have now enacted bans against it, most recently North Carolina this week. Mitt Romney responded by categorically rejecting it, drawing a clear line for voters who care a great deal about the matter.

Last week in a speech at Ohio State University, Mr. Obama recalled that in 2008 that he said he wouldn't be a perfect president. "But I promised that I would always tell you what I thought. I would always tell you where I stood." It took some time on this issue, but he finally did both, in explaining his evolution and taking that stand, thanks in part to Joe Biden's outspoken "gaffe."

Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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