A question 
of character

President Obama’s long national evolution is over. His bewildering, bungled admission that he now supports marriage for same-sex couples, after a lengthy “evolution” expedited by another Joe Biden gaffe, was an embarrassing episode he won’t want to repeat.

Before his hastily planned ABC News interview Wednesday afternoon, in which he announced his belief that same-sex couples should be able to legally wed, Obama’s water-treading wimp-out on the highly charged issue was making him appear to be as cynical, calculating and cowardly as his adversaries describe him. The president who has done more to help the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community than any president — ever — was opposed to any efforts to ban gay marriage, but couldn’t support it either, because he was “evolving.” It wasn’t leading from behind, it was hiding in a closet.

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But Vice President Biden’s statement Sunday on “Meet the Press,” that he is “absolutely comfortable” with homosexuals marrying, forced Obama to come clean. Whether Biden’s remarks represented a trial balloon or an accidental explosion, the administration scrambled desperately to mitigate the damage, and it wasn’t pretty. Senior adviser David Axelrod tweeted immediately following the Sunday show that “What VP said that all married couples should have exactly the same rights is precisely POTUS’s position.” Then Biden’s office sent out an equally ludicrous statement that he was “expressing that he too is evolving on the issue, after meeting so many committed couples and families in this country.”

Team Obama failed not only to assess the enormous cost of delay and diversion, but also to anticipate that sending spokesman Jay Carney out to bob and weave without any new and clarifying statements would be not only devastating, but laughable. Under either scenario, that it was deliberate or Obama was forced into his admission, he failed a test of leadership.

Unfortunately, allies in the fight, who feel Obama’s pain, including a Cabinet member, then began throwing him under the bus. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, when asked on MSNBC on Monday whether gay Americans should have the right to marry, refused to dodge and said crisply, “Yes, I do.” And numerous activists from the LGBT community stated their widespread belief that the president had completed his evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage and simply wasn’t admitting it publicly. 

Obama has earned praise from the LGBT community for signing hate-crimes legislation, repealing the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and directing the Justice Department to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and supporting its repeal. But there were plenty of political reasons to avoid taking an official stand on the marriage issue — North Carolina on Tuesday passed a constitutional ban on gay marriages and civil unions that Obama opposed. Obama won North Carolina in 2008 by fewer than 14,000, with the help of 300,000 new black voters. Many of them oppose gay marriage and — already disappointed by the economy — could decide to stay home. Despite gay marriage being legalized in eight states, and a small majority nationally now supporting it in polling, voters have rejected it every time it has appeared on statewide ballot measures, as North Carolinians did this week. 

But the issue Obama struggled with was not just same-sex marriage — he allowed a controversy to grow and turn into a question of his character. Though his aides tried attacking his opponent, and the fact that Mitt Romney once pledged to be more supportive of gay rights than the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, it did nothing to muffle the noise of Obama’s strained silence. The president’s problem was his own attempt to hide the truth until after the election and to have it both ways. 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.