When Joe Biden went on Meet the Press on Sunday and said that he felt “absolutely comfortable” with people of the same gender marrying, it was instant news: The vice president, it seemed, had just endorsed gay marriage, a major bridge the White House had yet to cross. President Obama‘s re-election campaign moved quickly to insist that Biden hadn’t backed gay marriage and was simply stating current policy — that there should be no discrimination in domestic partner rights for gay people. But it was too late: The simmering issue at the core of the Democratic Party was turned on full flame.
Obama for the past few years has said that he is “evolving” on the issue of gay marriage: He does not yet support it but has worked hard for gay people on other issues, such as ending the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. But he now lags behind many people in his own administration when it comes to evolution on marriage: along with Biden, both Housing and Urban Development Secretary Sean Donovan and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have endorsed same-sex weddings. They caveat that the president sets the policy, but their own public statements have opened the administration up to hard questioning.
Following Biden’s appearance on Meet the Press, several of Obama’s top campaign advisers have gone on television and been asked to discuss the president’s policy. On Monday, chief adviser David Axelrod was interviewed by Piers Morgan on CNN and re-affirmed the White House’s claim that Biden’s comments matched Obama’s policy beliefs: Gay couples should have the same rights as straight couples, but he did not support marriage. He also added, “[Obama] believes it’s unconstitutional for states not to recognize — the government not to recognize marriages that are legally recognized by the state,” and he went on to tout, once again, ending DADT and dropping DOMA appeals.
It was a similar situation when deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter was interviewed by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell earlier in the day; in a more intense environment, Cutter did her best to reconcile Biden and Obama’s words, finally saying that she did not want to create news during the interview.
If it were only a matter of contending with intense media speculation, the administration would be accustomed to dealing with the situation. But as Obama’s re-election campaign gets into full swing, two of his most important supporter groups — and fiscal sources — are also ratcheting up the pressure.
During the 2008 election, Obama benefitted from perhaps the most enthusiastic, concerted and generous political campaign effort in Hollywood history. From donations to public appearances and music videos endorsing then-Sen. Obama, the industry helped make him a seeming rock star. He has since upset some people in show business, and his lower fundraising total from Hollywood has prompted his campaign to pay special attention to the celebrities and executives with deep pockets. As the upcoming $12 million fundraiser hosted by George Clooney shows, they can still bring in the big bucks when they’re feeling loved.
But, there’s a bit of a catch: Hollywood has long led on the issue of gay marriage, putting the president at odds with them on the matter. During THR and Google’s Pre-White House Correspondents’ Dinner Party, nearly every celebrity surveyed listed the legalization of gay marriage on a national level among the issues about which they care most, if not number one. In a recent op-ed for THR, Dustin Lance Black came down hard on both Democrats and Republicans for their refusal to move forward on the issue.
TV shows including Will & Grace (as Biden mentioned on Meet the Press), Modern Family and NBC’s upcoming comedy The New Normal have helped change public opinion about gay couples, and it’s safe to say that the longer Obama waits on the issue, the more frustrated the community will grow with him. Perhaps it won’t cost him their votes, but it might slow the flow of cash and public rally appearances.
That concern doesn’t end with Hollywood. As the Washington Post reports, one in six of Obama’s so-called bundlers — people who raise money in great stacks for the president’s campaign — is gay, giving the issue great importance in his fiscal game. NBC News’ Chuck Todd on Monday said that “gay money has replaced Wall Street money” for Obama this time around.
With a country split on the issue — trending toward acceptance but with swing states and certain constituents still unsure about legalization — Obama has a careful needle to thread; he can’t win without money and enthusiasm, but he must consider whether endorsing gay marriage would cost him enough votes to lose. And then, of course, is the question of his personal beliefs and legacy, though in a presidential election, those things might be academic.
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin