Little happens by accident in the Obama White House, or the Obama reelection campaign for that matter -- if there even is a difference between the two. And the dramatic decision by the president to come out Wednesday in support of same-sex marriage is no exception. Contrary to what many in the news media would have us believe, the decision was carefully planned and timed.
One thing it was not: It was not the forced result of public pressure coming from others in his administration, starting with Vice President Biden. Biden, who said Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press" that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage, was merely playing the role of John the Baptist, preparing the way for Obama’s coming.
We, and by “we” I mean those of us in the news media who by training and experience are armed to cut through political fog, blindly groped and assumed that it was just Biden once again putting his foot in his mouth.
Or as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote on Tuesday, another case of the gaffe-prone Biden making a mess that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had to clean up.
“Carney should be offered a membership in the janitor’s union,” Milbank chortled.
We should have been tipped off that Biden’s position was prophesy when a day later Education Secretary Arne Duncan, one of Obama’s Chicago cronies, said on MSNBC that he too supported same-sex marriage. Also on Monday, Caroline Kennedy, co-chairman of the Obama reelection campaign said she would push to have a same-sex marriage plank put in the Democratic Platform at the party’s national convention in September.
But rather than connect the dots and find that we were being softened for the kill, we were encouraged to write and opine that a conscience-torn Obama was becoming increasingly isolated on the same-sex issue as some of his top administration and political aides began abandoning ship.
The conventional wisdom being peddled by the media was that the president, whose position up to now had been that he opposed same-sex marriage but supported civil unions, was being pushed to make a decision he really wanted to postpone until after Election Day.
“Gay Marriage Back on Radar,” blared a headline in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. “As same-sex marriage became the topic of the day, the White House was forced to focus on a divisive social issue that could stir discord within the Democratic Party,” the article said.
Obama strategists couldn’t have written it better.
Rather than being “forced to focus,” it is apparent that the Obama team was focused all along. Its strategy clearly was to make the controversial decision early in the campaign, giving the inevitable dust kicked up plenty of time to settle.
Wednesday presented the opportune time to come out because it was a day after North Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Obama’s support, which came in a staged interview with ABC News, overshadowed news coverage of that vote and helped him look like a hero to same-sex marriage supporters demoralized by the North Carolina defeat.
“I watched the interview and the tears flooded. There is something about hearing your president affirm your humanity,” said Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan Wednesday in an interview on NPR’s "All Things Considered." Sullivan is gay and in a same-sex marriage.
By Thursday, the Obama campaign was already shoring up that support with a video against Republican rival Mitt Romney, depicting him as out of touch on the same-sex-marriage issue. Romney is opposed to same-sex marriage as well as civil unions.
And talk about coincidence: Obama will take a victory lap among many same-sex marriage supporters Thursday evening at a star-studded fundraiser at the Los Angeles home of actor George Clooney. It is expected to raise nearly $15 million, a record for a single political-fundraising event.
Despite the obvious re-election dangers in Obama’s decision to support same-sex marriage, his strategists are willing to face them. Polls show Americans about evenly divided on the issue, with support growing in recent years. Moreover, Obama strategists still see the economy and jobs the major issues motivating voters. And they view as unwinnable those strongly opposed to same-sex marriage to the point where it will determine their vote.
Even black voters, many of whom are opposed to same-sex marriage, are highly unlikely in any significant numbers to abandon the president over it. The latest Gallup Tracking Poll shows Obama with 90 percent of the black vote. No other racial, age, gender or ideological group comes anywhere near that high in support.
One bloc where Obama might be angling to gain support with his decision on same-sex marriage is 18-29 year old voters, a group he courted assiduously in recent weeks stumping in favor of lower interest rates on student loans. Obama got 66 percent of the 18-29 vote in 2008, but recent polls show him running at around 56 percent with that group, clearly a worrisome deficit. Young voters are the strongest supporters of same-sex marriage.
In a segment of that same ABC News interview, which was taped on Wednesday afternoon and aired Thursday, on "Good Morning America," Obama said Biden’s coming out on Sunday with his own support of same-sex marriage was premature and only forced him to move up his timetable, which was to do it some time prior to the Democratic National Convention in September. In other words, it was just Joe being Joe.
“He probably got a little bit over his skis,” Obama said with benevolence. “Would I have preferred to have done this in my own way, in my own terms, without there being a lot of notice to everybody? Sure,”
If you buy that, I have a bridge I want to sell you.
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at Georgetown University. As a reporter, Benedetto covered every presidential campaign since 1984.