White House, Obama Campaign on Defense After Biden Backs Gay Marriage

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP Photo

The White House and the Obama campaign are playing defense on gay marriage, after comments by Vice President Joe Biden reignited debate over the president's position on the issue and whether he would seek to legalize same-sex marriages in a second term.

On Sunday, Biden candidly expressed support for gay marriage but stopped short of saying whether the president, who has long said his position on the issue is "evolving," would back same-sex marriage.

"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," Biden said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The White House today was quick to deny that the Vice President's remarks signaled a shift in the administration's policy.

"What he said about the protection of rights of citizens is completely consistent with the president's position on this issue, and his description of the way the country has moved on this issue, I think, is wholly accurate," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters today. "I think there is a little bit of an overreaction here."

While the president has supported civil unions, he continues to say his position on gay marriage is evolving. "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," the president first told a group of progressive bloggers in October 2010.

"My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this," the president said again in December of 2011. "At this point, what I've said is, is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have. And I think - and I think that's the right thing to do. But I recognize that from their perspective it is not enough, and I think is something that we're going to continue to debate and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward."

Do Biden's comments indicate the president's evolution is complete? "I have no update on the president's personal views," Carney said.

Despite his hesitation on same-sex marriage, the president is adamant that he has met his commitments to the LGBT community. "I have delivered on what I promised and that doesn't mean our work is done. There are gonna be times when you're still frustrated with me. I know there are gonna be times where you're still frustrated with the pace of change. I understand that," the president said at an event marking LGBT Pride Month last June.

The administration points to the president's efforts to end "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and quit any legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, as evidence of his support for gay and lesbian rights.

The president's campaign has also walked back on Biden's comments, trying to draw attention instead to Mitt Romney's position on same-sex unions. "By the way, there couldn't be a starker contrast on this issue than with Governor Romney who has funded efforts to roll back marriage laws in California and other places who believes that we need a constitutional amendment banning the right of gay couples to marry and would take us backward not forward. So there's a very clear distinction," senior strategist David Axelrod told reporters on a conference call today.

But Biden isn't the only administration official to support allowing gays and lesbians to wed. With the issue now back in the spotlight, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has also offered his endorsement.

In an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Monday, Duncan was asked if he thought same-sex couples should have the legal right to marry. "Yes. I do," Duncan responded bluntly.

The issue has also become a hot topic in the key battleground state of North Carolina, which later this week will vote on a measure to ban same-sex marriages.

Former President  Bill Clinton, one of the president's most powerful supporters, is voicing his opposition to the measure that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. "Hello, this is President Bill Clinton. I'm calling to urge you to vote against Amendment One on Tuesday May 8," Clinton says in a robo-call to voters.