WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s election-year vagueness on gay marriage is coming under fresh scrutiny.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan broke ranks with the White House on Monday, stating his unequivocal support for same-sex marriage one day after Vice President Joe Biden suggested that he supported gay marriage as well.
Obama aides worked to manage any political fallout. They said the back-to-back remarks by two top administration officials represented personal viewpoints and were not part of a coordinated effort to lay groundwork for a shift in the president’s position. Obama aides also tried to use the latest flare-up in the gay-marriage debate to shine a light on GOP rival Mitt Romney’s history of equivocating on some gay-rights issues, an attempt to turn a potential political problem into an opportunity.
Obama, who supports most gay rights, has stopped short of backing gay marriage. Without clarification, he’s said for the past year and a half that his personal views on the matter are “evolving.”
The White House held firm on Monday to that position, which polls show puts the president increasingly at odds with his party and the majority of Americans on gay marriage. But with Biden and Duncan’s comments reinvigorating the debate, Obama is likely to face renewed pressure to clarify his views ahead of the November election.
Throughout his first term, he has sought to walk a fine line on same-sex marriage. He’s trying to satisfy rank-and-file Democrats by supporting a range of gay rights issues without alienating crucial independent voters who could be turned off by the emotional social issue.
The president’s aides acknowledge that his position can be confusing. In states where gay marriage already is legal, the president says married gay couples should have the same rights as married straight couples. But he does not publicly support the right of gay couples to enter into a marriage in the first place.
Duncan, a longtime friend of the president as well as a member of his Cabinet, made clear Monday that his position on gay marriage was not in lockstep with the White House. Asked in a television interview whether he believed gay couples should legally be allowed to marry, Duncan said simply, “Yes, I do.”
His comments followed Biden’s assertion Sunday that he was “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”
Obama aides said Duncan was speaking about his personal views on the issue and was not under orders from the White House or the campaign to take his position.
As for Biden, White House and campaign officials said the vice president’s remarks were no different from what he and Obama have said in the past.
“They were entirely consistent with the president’s position, which is that couples who are married, whether they are gay or heterosexual couples are entitled to the very same rights and very same liberties,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign. “When people are married, we ought to recognize those marriages.”
The latest political dust-up over gay marriage came just before North Carolina voters were to weigh in on a ballot initiative that would ban gay marriage in that state. Obama opposes the ban, as does former President Bill Clinton, who has recorded automated phone calls ahead of the vote. Obama was heading on Tuesday for Albany, N.Y., where lawmakers voted last year to approve gay marriage in that state.
“The record is clear that the president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney, who was peppered with questions about same-sex unions throughout his daily briefing Monday. He said there was no conflict between Obama not supporting gay marriage and yet opposing a ban.
At the same time, Obama aides sought to gain the upper hand on the issue with independent voters by highlighting Romney’s record on gay rights. Aides argued there was a clear distinction between the Republican candidate and Obama, who repealed the military’s ban on openly gay service members and ordered his administration to stop enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Romney favors a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, saying the policy should be set federally, not by states. Some conservatives have questioned Romney’s commitment to that position, noting that during his 1994 Senate run, he said he supported “full equality” for gays and lesbians.
To put such doubts to rest, Romney told an Ohio television station Monday that he believes “marriage is between a man and a woman, and that’s a position I’ve had for some time and I don’t intend to make any adjustments at this point — or ever, by the way.”
Many gay rights advocates and people close to Obama’s campaign suggest it is no longer a matter of if, but when the president voices his support for same-sex marriage. The hope among some Democrats, and the fear among some Republicans, is that Obama is simply waiting until after the election to state his views publicly.
Obama has acknowledged he will have more freedom in some areas following the November contest. He was overheard telling outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March that “after my election I have more flexibility.” In that instance, Obama was speaking about the issue of missile defense.
Richard Socarides, a gay rights supporter who was a White House official in the Clinton administration, said Duncan’s and Biden’s comments this week may prevent Obama from being able to stay quiet on gay marriage before Election Day.
“It becomes increasingly difficult to finesse this for very much longer,” Socarides said. “The president is going to get asked about this every time there’s an opportunity.”
One upcoming opportunity is a campaign fundraiser Obama is scheduled to headline with gay and lesbian supporters in early June.
The issue also is expected to surface at the Democratic convention in September, where many party leaders want to include support for gay marriage in the official platform. Caroline Kennedy, one of Obama’s campaign co-chairs, voiced her support for that effort on Monday.
Gay marriage is legal in six states, plus the District of Columbia.
Obama’s reluctance to embrace gay marriage has increasingly put him at odds with a majority of Americans. A Washington Post/ABC News poll from March found that 52 percent felt it should be legal for gay and lesbian couples to get married, while 43 percent said it should be illegal.
Support for gay marriage is highest among Democrats, with 64 percent supportive of the issue. Just over half of independents — 54 percent — back legalized gay marriage, according to the Post/ABC poll. Support among Republicans is the lowest, at 39 percent.