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  • Sasha Issenberg

May 4, 2012: Biden announces support for gay marriage

ON THIS DAY IN 2012…


Vice President Joe Biden announced his support for gay marriage, a reversal of his previous position that upended secret plans for President Barack Obama to announce a similar election-year shift.


Biden had long been in his party’s mainstream when it came to gay and lesbian issues, including same-sex marriage. He had voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and opposed a Federal Marriage Amendment eight years later. “We already have a law, the Defense of Marriage Act,” Biden said on NBC’s Meet the Press in 2006, as President George W. Bush made a second push for a constitutional amendment. “We’ve all voted — not, where I’ve voted, and others have said, look, marriage is between a man and a woman and states must respect that. Nobody’s violated that law, there’s been no challenge to that law. Why do we need a constitutional amendment? Marriage is between a man and a woman.”


Biden was back on the Meet the Press set in May 2012, this time as vice president. Marriage had reëmerged as a national issue. North Carolinians would vote that week to amend their state constitution to ban same-sex unions — its passage was all-but assured — and the advocacy group Freedom to Marry had begun actively pressuring prominent Democrats to support a blank in their party’s platform endorsing equal marriage rights. Inside the Obama White House, plans were afoot for Obama, who had previously said that his views on the subject were “evolving,” to declare that he was dropping his opposition to gay marriage.


Taping an interview on Friday afternoon to air on Sunday morning, host David Gregory asked Biden whether his views on marriage had “evolved.” Biden indicated that they had. “The good news is that, as more and more Americans come to understand, what this is all about is a simple proposition: Who do you love and will you be loyal to the person you love?” he said. “And that’s what people are finding out is what all marriages at their root are about, whether their marriage is of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.” Pressed by Gregory, Biden said that he personally endorsed that view. While noting that “the president sets the policy,” the vice president declared himself “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one other 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.”


Biden’s own communications staff were divided about whether he had said anything especially newsworthy. But when the transcript reached campaign headquarters in Chicago, it was read as an explicit subversion — whether conscious or the result of a verbal carelessness for which Biden had become known — of a six-month process underway to permit Obama to make an announcement on his terms. Some of Obama’s closest advisers considered Biden’s statement an outright betrayal, even as the White House insisted publicly that the vice president had not in fact contradicted the president on policy.


Yet by the time the weekend ended, Biden’s words would set in motion a chain of events that would force Obama — now under heightened pressure from all sides to clarify his views and how they differed from Biden’s — to announce that week he, too, believed “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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