President Obama is “comfortable” with full legal rights for same-sex couples but still doesn’t support gay marriage, his spokesman said Monday as the administration scrambled to clarify comments by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. that supported such unions.
“I have no update on the president’s personal views,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney in a press conference dominated by questions of whether the president agrees with Mr. Biden.
On Sunday’s edition of “Meet the Press,” Mr. Biden was candid in his support of gay marriage but wouldn’t say whether the administration would seek to alter federal law on the subject 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 on the NBC show. “All the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.”
On Monday, Education Arne Duncan added his voice to the growing Democratic chorus in favor of recognizing gay marriage. Asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” whether he thinks same-sex couples should be able to marry legally in the U.S., Mr. Duncan replied, “Yes, I do.”
Mr. Duncan joined 22 Democratic U.S. senators, the chair of this year’s Democratic National Convention and a host of other Democratic Party officials who are in favor of legalized gay marriage. Many of them are endorsing a gay-marriage plank in this year’s party platform.
Supporters of gay rights, some of whom contribute significant amounts of money to Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign, have been eager for him to come out in support of gay marriage before the November election.
But pressed repeatedly on the question Monday, the president’s spokesman would only refer reporters to Mr. Obama’s previous statement from 2010, that his views on the issue were “evolving.” Reporters asked Mr. Carney at least 48 questions about the issue in the 44-minute briefing.
“The vice president expressed his personal views,” Mr. Carney said. “What he said about the protection of the rights of citizens is completely consistent with the president’s position on this issue.”
The situation with Mr. Biden flared just as voters in North Carolina are preparing to vote Tuesday on a referendum that would both affirm the traditional definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and also bar any civil unions. The latest poll shows 55 percent in favor and 39 percent opposed, as prominent figures such as the Rev. Billy Graham and former President Bill Clinton have made pleas to voters on each side of the issue.
Mr. Carney said the president opposes the proposed ban on gay marriage in the Tar Heel state. That prompted a reporter to ask, “So help me out here — he opposes bans on gay marriage, but he doesn’t yet support gay marriage?”
“The record is clear that the president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples,” Mr. Carney replied. “That is a position he has taken that precedes his taking a position in North Carolina. It’s a position he’s taken in other states where this has been an issue. Yes, he is opposed to efforts in states to deny rights that have been provided to citizens.”
When a reporter accused the president of “trying to have it both ways before an election,” Mr. Carney replied, “No.”
“This president has been extremely aggressive in supporting [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] rights,” he said, citing the president’s support for ending the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
A gay Republican activist, Chris Barron of GOProud, said Mr. Biden “was speaking his mind and his heart on this issue” but was critical of what he called the last day of White House back-tracking.
“The walking back of Biden’s comments represent the worst of cynical politics,” Mr. Barron said. “I think the truth that the left has to come to terms with is that for Obama and his campaign team, this issue of marriage equality is nothing more than a political football. Obama will be against marriage as long as he thinks that’s the more advantageous position to take politically. Fierce advocate indeed.”
In October 2010, the president suggested to a group of bloggers his views might 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,” Mr. Obama said.