The White House and the Obama campaign on Monday sought to contain pressure on President Obama to change his stance on gay marriage following Vice President Biden’s remark that he’s “absolutely comfortable” with it.
Obama has said that he is opposed to gay marriage while adding the caveat that his views are “evolving” — a carefully phrased position that has angered some gay-rights activists and donors.
“The president is the right person to describe his own personal views,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Monday. “He, as you know, has said that his views on this were evolving, and I don’t have an update for you on that.”
With nearly six months to go until Election Day, Team Obama insists that it is not trying to have it both ways on the wedge issue of gay rights. Carney stressed that Obama has “a record he’s very proud of” on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.
“Look, this president has been extremely aggressive in supporting LGBT rights,” Carney said. “He fought against those who opposed the repeat of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ and achieved that in this administration.
“There are those who want to bring ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ back,” Carney said. “He very robustly fights against efforts to restrict or deny … rights to LGBT citizens and discriminate against them, and he’ll continue to do so.”
Obama’s campaign, meanwhile, tried to pivot the discussion away from the president to the views of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
“There couldn’t be a starker contrast on this issue than with Gov. Romney, who has funded efforts to roll back marriage laws in California and other places,” Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said on a conference call with reporters.
The Obama White House has walked a fine line on same-sex unions, trumpeting issues that are important to members of the LGBT community while never embracing gay marriage.
Biden’s remarks came at an inopportune moment for the Obama campaign. North Carolina, a swing state Obama is eyeing in November, will hold a referendum on gay marriage on Tuesday, and voters are expected to approve the amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
Republicans seized on the debate, saying that Obama is being dishonest about his views.
“The president’s position as it sits today is the same position of Mitt Romney, because isn’t the president saying that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman?” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said on MSNBC.
“The difference is that Mitt Romney is being honest about his position the whole way through,” Priebus added. “He’s claiming that marriage should be between one man and one woman.”
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the first openly gay member of Congress, recently gave Obama high marks on LGBT issues, though he said it’s “a problem” that the administration hasn’t endorsed gay marriage.
Now, on the heels of Biden’s comments Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” some gay activists and donors said they weren’t pleased with how the administration walked back the remarks.
“The walk-back was one of the weakest moments for the administration on this issue,” said one LGBT activist. “[Biden] was crystal clear on what he was saying. People in the gay community know what’s going on, but the fact that they’re not doing a more masterful job of explaining this is a little upsetting.
“We all know that this is election season, and in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where there are opposing views, they’re not willing to fall on their swords right now.”
Another prominent gay supporter — who attended a fundraiser featuring a who’s-who of gay donors for Obama in Florida last month — said that while the president’s refusal to express his support for gay marriage stings the community, “they know the alternative is frightening.”
Fred Sainz, the vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, agreed with that premise, saying the differences between Romney and Obama are “stark and cold.”
“There’s not an alternative. We view this president as a friend,” Sainz said. “He has done more for the LGBT community than every other president combined … but we’re urging the friend to do the right thing.”
Sainz said that the organization was “extremely gratified” by Biden’s and Duncan’s comments, but added that he didn’t think the president’s making a similar proclamation was necessary.
“If campaign advisers say their positions are the same, then the president is for marriage equality,” Sainz said.