Mr. Biden's comfort level made Mr. Obama the nation's least comfortable politician, tied up in a knot of convoluted positions that he had hoped voters on both sides would overlook.
He opposed state laws like the one passed in North Carolina this week denying same-sex couples the right to wed. But even as he opposed anti-marriage laws, he didn't support pro-marriage laws.
It was an awkward straddle, but as long as the issue was out of the spotlight, the president intended to stick with it. Mr. Biden's candor made that impossible. The spectacle of the president and vice president disagreeing got in the way of the Obama campaign's planned rollout this week of its basic economic message. And the issue was going to come up again and again — at Thursday night's fundraiser at
Still, I'm willing to cut Mr. Obama some slack on this issue. Like a lot of Americans, he was blindsided by the astonishing pace of change in public opinion on an issue that seemed almost immovable only a few years ago.
As recently as 2004, a Pew Research Center poll found that 60 percent of Americans opposed allowing same-sex couples to marry, with 36 percent strongly opposed. By last month, those opposed had shrunk to 43 percent, with 22 percent strongly opposed.
"It's difficult to think of any other issue on which that kind of change has occurred so quickly," Pew Center President Andrew Kohut told me Tuesday.
What changed? A huge factor is generational, Kohut says. Young people — those born after 1980, who grew up seeing sympathetic gay characters on television — are in favor of gay marriage by a resounding 63 percent. Their grandparents, the pre-baby-boom elders born before 1946, are still mostly opposed, although their opposition has weakened too.
Another explanation comes from
But that wave of change wasn't visible in advance. In 2004, Republican strategist
In 2004, the "safe" position for a Democratic politician on this issue was to support civil unions. That was supposed to be the judicious middle ground: equal legal rights for same-sex couples but without the polarizing word "marriage."
And that was the position adopted by then-Sen. Barack Obama, a politician whose first instinct is often to look for the middle ground. Among other things, he knew that most religiously observant African-American voters, a big chunk of his base of support, were conservative on the issue.
As president, he kept his promises to take practical steps toward equal rights for gay people, including an end to the military's policy of "don't ask, don't tell." But on gay marriage — a largely symbolic question for a president because marriage is mostly under state jurisdiction — he remained in limbo.
The problem, of course, was that public opinion was changing, and Mr. Obama's safe middle ground was melting like a polar bear's iceberg.
The politics still aren't simple. Gay marriage is more popular than it was in 2004, but the shift in public opinion may have plateaued. The Gallup Poll found this month that 50 percent of Americans believe same-sex marriages should be legal, but that was down from 53 percent a year ago.
African-Americans and Latinos are still less hospitable to gay marriage than white voters, and Mr. Obama needs strong support from those minority groups to win in November.
Swing states are a problem for the president too. The numbers in national polls include supporters of gay marriage in states where it's already legal, like Massachusetts and New York, places where Mr. Obama already has more votes there than he needs. Where he needs help is places like Ohio, Florida and Virginia, which have passed gay marriage bans.
Only this week, North Carolina, a state Obama won in 2008 (and briefly hoped to win again this year), voted by a whopping 60 percent to approve a state constitutional amendment that outlaws not only gay marriage but also other forms of domestic partnership.
To Mr. Obama and his political advisors, it seemed to make sense, as a matter of practical politics, for the president to try to skate through this election year in his unfinished state of evolution. As long as most of his gay supporters were willing to put up with it, what was the downside?
Mr. Biden made that impossible — and Mr. Obama responded quickly. He sounded thoughtful in his interview with
And he talked about how knowing those people and having those conversations prompted him to change his views — just like a lot of other Americans.