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Did Biden “Out” Obama?

May 11, 2012

I have observed that President Obama always has a strategy.  He’s intellectually meticulous, and he doesn’t often act on impulse.  And, whether by instruction or by example, he obtains similar meticulousness from his people – the Obama Administration has been one of the most focused and disciplined in memory.  There have certainly been any number of hard-fought, high-level disagreements, but those disagreements have rarely made their way into the news.

So what to make of this week’s same-sex marriage flap?  Vice President Joe Biden goes on Meet the Press and declares that he is “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage – a position that up to that moment was directly contrary to President Obama’s public position.

If you accept the White House assertion that President Obama determined a few months ago to support marriage equality, it seems to me there are three plausible scenarios.

The first scenario is that Vice President Biden got out “over his skis.”   This scenario, the Loose Cannon Scenario, is the one the commentariat settled on, and the one that the White House is pushing.

The second scenario is that the entire sequence was orchestrated as a way to bring up the subject, to give President Obama the opportunity to address it.  This is the Strategic Scenario.  A variant on this scenario is that the Vice President’s comments were a trial balloon – if it went well, Obama would “come out”; if not, everyone would shake their heads and say something wry about old Joe going off the reservation again.  This is the commentariats’ rejected alternative to its preferred Loose Cannon Scenario.

There’s a third possibility.  If Biden knew that Obama had changed his mind, and wanted to force the subject, Biden might well have made his statements out of his own calculations.  And a variant of this scenario is that Biden wants to run for president in 2016, and saw an opportunity to burnish his image in the party’s base, to level things out a little as between him and either Hillary Clinton or Andrew Cuomo.

Personally, my money is on the Strategic Scenario.  No doubt Joe Biden has a history of speaking his mind a tad too freely.   But he’s clearly been enhancing his “message discipline” skills over the last three years.  And his pro-same-sex marriage comments to David Gregory went way beyond a passing reference – he gave an extended, reasoned explanation of what is clearly a well thought out and firmly held opinion.  It didn’t feel like Loose Cannon Joe.

Moreover, the very next day, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on Morning Joe that he also favors same-sex marriage.  Secretary Duncan is not known for his cannonical looseness – and in any event, it is not in the nature of loose cannons to fire in tandem.

The White House line is that President Obama made up his mind a few months ago, and had determined to state his new position publicly at some point before the convention.  Assuming that is true, then the President and his staff would be looking for a way to bring up the subject – presidential politics being what they are, a president doesn’t just hold a press conference to announce, unprompted, that he has changed his mind on an important issue.

And finally, consider this – if any of my three scenarios is true, the most likely White House explanation would be the Loose Cannon Scenario:  Biden got out “over his skis.”  They certainly aren’t going to admit that they plotted the whole thing.  And they even more certainly aren’t going to admit that Biden outfoxed his boss.  The only scenario that can withstand public acknowledgement is the Loose Cannon Scenario, so of course that’s the one they’re going with.

*          *          *

Sometimes, even the best-calculated schemes benefit from luck.  This week we had a juxtaposition that only luck can buy.  On one side, we have President Obama justifying same-sex marriage by reference to the Golden Rule:  we should treat same-sex couples as we would want to be treated ourselves.  On the other side, we have five former Mitt Romney classmates professing their disgust for a gay-bashing incident that they witnessed or participated in and that Romney organized and led, back at their elite private high school in 1965.  Golden Rule versus gay-bashing – which sounds more Christian?

The Romney line is, as it has to be, not a denial.  With five witnesses fingering him as the ringleader, denial would pose big problems.  Romney probably also has to say that he doesn’t remember the incident, because if he did remember it, he would be expected to explain himself.  But his claim not to remember is itself problematic – the other five lesser participants remember it clearly enough, and you can be sure that the victim remembered it, vividly, right up to the day he died.

I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged today by the worst thing I ever did in high school – although for most of us, our “worst thing” probably involved no personal violence.  When I was in the ninth grade, I cheated on a biology exam – I’m quite sure nobody was psychologically scarred by my evil deed.  And yet I remember the event clearly enough.  Romney’s amnesia about his gay-bashing may prove to be what keeps this issue alive.

And that incident did not live in isolation.  Apparently Romney made a habit of yelling out “Atta girl” whenever a particular gay student spoke in class.  Having been the subject of all-too-similar harassment by my classmates, I know how much that would hurt and how much it was intended to hurt.  It speaks to a lack of compassion, a failure of empathy that dogs Romney still.

The focus on his elite private schooling must also be unwanted for Romney.  The American middle class knows that Romney had benefits and opportunities well beyond what most of us could even conceive.  At the time that he engaged in these now-public incidents, his father was the Governor of Michigan.  Granted that protecting gay kids was not likely a faculty priority in 1965, one does wonder how Romney was able to assault a tuition-paying student, and randomly call out atta girls in class, without evident consequence.

*          *          *

A lot has been written in the last few days about how these events will affect President Obama’s chances for re-election.  The affect on public opinion of Obama is important and interesting, but by contrast I note a relative lack of discussion of the effect of Obama on public opinion of same-sex marriage.  Nate Silver notes at FiveThirtyEight that national polling averages now show a 50-47 percent plurality supporting same-sex marriage rights.  This week, the Vice President and President of the United States (plus, for anyone who’s counting, the Secretary of Education) declared their support for marriage equality.

Time was, not so long ago, that straight men rarely voiced support for any gay right, for fear of being perceived as gay themselves.  That time has gone.  Even those who believe President Obama is a Muslim Kenyan socialist know that he’s heterosexual.  Same goes for Biden.  I wonder if this week’s events have given a little space to straight men to voice support for gay marriages.

It may be that President Obama gets a polling bounce from the same-sex marriage kerfuffle.  And it may be that same-sex marriage gets a polling bounce as well.

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