Maybe it was another example of the irrepressible Joe Biden failing to repress an impolitic comment. Or perhaps the vice president's statement on a Sunday talk show that he is "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage was part of an orchestrated attempt by the Obama administration to inch further toward an official endorsement of marriage equality. Either way, Biden's expansive remarks on "Meet the Press" are a reminder that his boss has been trying to have it both ways: supporting equal legal rights for gay couples while stopping short of embracing the "M-word."
Obama's tiresome temporizing on this issue is easily explained. By coming right up to the edge of endorsing marriage equality, he hopes to win or retain the allegiance of socially conservative voters without fatally alienating an equal number of same-sex marriage supporters. Meanwhile, Obama's repeated hints that his views on marriage are "evolving" leave little doubt about where they would end up in a second term.
But even if the president's strip-tease strategy makes pragmatic political sense, it's unseemly — a profile in cowardice rather than courage. To his credit, Obama has been the most pro-gay president in history (perhaps because this is the most pro-gay moment in history). His administration pressed Congress to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy preventing gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, and it has declined to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and lets states refuse to recognize gay marriages performed in other states. Obama opposed California's Proposition 8, calling it "divisive and mean-spirited."
Yet these initiatives only make Obama's continued refusal to endorse same-sex marriage more anomalous. After Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the chairman of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, called for an endorsement of same-sex marriage in the party's platform, Obama's campaign manager deflected a question about whether Obama would support such a plank, noting that it would have to go through the routine drafting process. True, but when an incumbent president is seeking reelection, part of that process is to hew closely to the nominee's views.
Which brings us back to Biden. His comments on "Meet the Press" — in which he described an encounter with the children of gay parents and mused about the effect of popular culture on changing attitudes — were a folksier version of the conversation Obama needs to have with the American people, with one difference. Instead of saying that he is "comfortable" with same-sex marriage, the president should make it clear that he endorses efforts across the nation to make it legal. That would be the natural and honest end to his "evolution."