Vice President Joe Biden expressed a candid openness to gay marriage today, but stopped short of saying whether President Obama would seek to legalize it as an institution in a second term.
"I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men marrying women are entitled to the same exact rights," he said. "All the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly I don't see much of a distinction beyond that."
Biden made the remarks during an interview that aired on NBC's "Meet the Press" this morning. The vice president told host David Gregory his personal views were a matter of heart.
"Who do you love? Who do you love and will you be loyal to the person you love?" Biden said, "And that's what people are finding out what all marriages at their root are about."
The comments could signal a further shift for the Obama administration as the president's reelection campaign enters full swing. Since the 2008 election, Obama has officially supported only civil unions, leading to some friction with liberal supporters. But in October 2010 the president suggested to a group of progressive bloggers his views could change.
"Attitudes evolve, including mine, and I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships," he said.
The administration has held to that stance since and Gregory asked whether Biden's views had also evolved.
The White House has traditionally held warm relations with the LGBT community and has hosted multiple conferences on the subject. Obama himself appears in a video from the " It Gets Better Project," a series of videos supporting gay victims of bullying. But after the repeal of the military's " Don't Ask Don't Tell," policy and the Justice Department's chilling of the Defense of Marriage Act, speculation has run over how the administration could go forward heading into November.
The vice president told Gregory that he measured the subject on how social culture changed to deal with it. He cited open portrayals of gay and lesbian characters on television as evidence of wider acceptance of the topic.
"I think 'Will and Grace' probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody's ever done so far," he said. "People fear that which is different and now they're beginning to understand."
Biden wouldn't say whether the administration would seek legislation federally recognizing gay marriage in a second term stating, "the president sets the policy." But the Obama campaign has already jumped in, with top strategist David Axelrod downplaying the event roughly an hour after it aired. He tweets:
"@DAVID AXELROD: @chucktodd @meetthepress What VP said-that all married couples should have exactly the same legal rights-is precisely POTUS's position."
The White House echoes Axelrod. In a statement released to Politico, a spokesperson from the Vice President's office maintains Biden's comments do not fall outside the administration's current stance.
"The Vice President was saying what the President has said previously - that committed and loving same-sex couples deserve the same rights and protections enjoyed by all Americans, and that we oppose any effort to rollback those rights [...] Beyond that, the Vice President was expressing that he too is evolving on the issue, after meeting so many committed couples and families in this country."
LGBT groups are expressing general support for Biden's comments, although some express wariness the White House and Obama campaign's statements are an attempt to walk-back the Vice President's candor. A written statement from the Human Rights Campaign reads:
"We are encouraged by Vice President Biden's comments, who rightly articulated that loving and committed gay and lesbian couples should be treated equally. Now is the time for President Obama to speak out for full marriage equality for same-sex couples."
HRC spokesman Fred Sainz would later write ABC News, "There's no question the VP was voicing his support for marriage equality, not some form of ambiguous relationship recognition."
However, at least one high ranking official within gay rights organizations said that this walk back isn't likely to do much damage to Obama's relationship with the gay community. The president, said this source, "has a lot of good will among the gay donor community."
Currently, gay couples can wed in six states and the District of Columbia.
This blog was updated at 4:55 pm.