White House Sends Mixed Signals On Gay Marriage

On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden expressed support for same-sex marriage. President Obama has not gone as far, saying his views on the issue are "evolving." On the Republican side, the Romney campaign recently lost a national security spokesman who is an outspoken defender of gay marriage.

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And I'm Melissa Block. This morning, the second senior administration official in two days expressed his personal support for same-sex marriage, even though that's a departure from President Obama's position. That led to a combative session with reporters this afternoon when the White House press secretary tried to explain the president's complicated views on the issue. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, this mixed message began Sunday when Vice President Biden said he is absolutely comfortable with same-sex marriage.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Until yesterday, President Obama and Vice President Biden were publicly on the exact same page about gay marriage. In short, their position was more or less not yet. On NBC's "Meet the Press," Vice President Biden was asked whether his view has changed, and this was his reply.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: What this is all about is a simple proposition. Who do you love? Who do you love, and will you be loyal to the person you love? And that's what people are finding out, is what all marriages at their root are about, whether they're marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.

SHAPIRO: Same-sex marriage advocates were thrilled. The vice president not only sounded like the most senior elected official ever to endorse gay marriage, Biden also adopted the language of the movement, talking about love, commitment and civil rights.

BIDEN: I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying - all are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that.

SHAPIRO: That may sound an awful lot like an expression of support for gay marriage, but less than 10 minutes later, Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod said no. In a tweet, he said Biden's statement is consistent with the president's support of civil unions. Mr. Obama says the issue of marriage should be up to the states. Yet he has supported states that legalize gay marriage, including New York just last year. At today's White House briefing, spokesman Jay Carney fielded dozens of questions, trying to explain what exactly the president believes.

JAY CARNEY: Well, I have no update on the president's personal views. What the vice president said yesterday was to make the same point that the president has made previously, that committed and loving same-sex couples deserve the same rights and protections enjoyed by all Americans.

SHAPIRO: For 18 months now, the president has said his views on marriage are evolving. Gay rights advocates widely believe that Mr. Obama will come out in favor of gay marriage after November's election. Richard Socarides says the politics here are ridiculous.

RICHARD SOCARIDES: Listen, the president is entitled to his opinion, and it may be different than the vice president's. But what the vice president said was clear, so to try to go back and, you know, change it after the fact, you know, it's just not possible.

SHAPIRO: Other members of the president's Cabinet are going even farther than Biden. Today on MSNBC, Education Secretary Arne Duncan was asked whether he supports same-sex marriage and Duncan replied...

SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: Yes, I do.

MARK HALPERIN: OK. Have you ever said that publicly before?

DUNCAN: I don't know if I've ever been asked publicly.

SHAPIRO: On the Republican side, Mitt Romney reiterated today that he believes marriage should be solely between a man and a woman. Last week, his campaign lost its most high-profiled gay employee, foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell, who was under fire for supporting gay marriage. Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center says these political maneuvers lag behind public opinion on the issue.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Our latest survey just last month found 47 percent in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to marry, 43 percent opposed. So the numbers are just now crossing with more support than opposition.

SHAPIRO: Yet from a different angle, gay marriage advocates still have a long way to go. Bans on same-sex marriage have been enacted in every state where the question has come before voters. Tomorrow, North Carolina becomes the latest state to vote on the issue. An affirmative vote would make it the 29th state to enact a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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