There’s a new book coming out Tuesday by Jo Becker, a reporter for The New York Times, that chronicles the story for marriage equality over the past several years, and it’s not exactly a testimonial to the political bravery of President Obama. According to the book, Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality, Obama was among the last in his Administration to decide it was time to embrace marriage equality, and when he did he followed the script suggested by the Republican who ran George W. Bush’s notoriously antigay re-election effort.
Becker had unprecedented access to the main players in the marriage equality debate on the grounds that she would withhold her reporting until the Supreme Court had made its decision. As a result, her reporting has behind-the-scenes details that clear up a lot of questions about the Administration’s move toward marriage equality.
For one, Becker makes it clear that politics was the biggest factor in the White House’s decision-making process. Prior to the president finally embracing marriage equality, Obama’s advisor David Axelrod told Becker that his boss “has never been comfortable with his position.” That’s a nice way of saying that the Obama who embraced marriage in 1996 was the real Obama all along. His position changed solely for political reasons.
And going into the re-election campaign, the White House was paralyzed with fear about marriage equality, recognizing that supporting it would motivate many younger voters but afraid that it would alienate others. In November 2011, another Obama advisor, David Plouffe, reached out to Ken Mehlman, the architect of George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, which was fueled by anti-marriage messages. Plouffe asked Mehlman, who had since come out as gay, for advice on how the president should handle “evolving.”
Mehlman had surveyed thousands of voters and didn’t believe that risks were as great as Obama’s team believed. He told Plouffe to schedule a television appearance with a female journalist and talk about the decision as one based upon family discussions. After that, he heard nothing.
In the end, it was Vice President Joe Biden who broke the logjam. The book relates a visit that Biden made to the home of Michael Lombardo, an HBO executive, and his husband, Sonny Ward, an architect. The couple have two children, 5 and 7. At the event, Chad Griffin, head of the Human Rights Campaign, put Biden on the spot by asking him for his position on gay marriage. To everyone’s surprised, Biden, who was clearly moved by the couple’s children, said “my job — our job — is to keep this momentum rolling to the inevitable.”
A month later, on Meet the Press, Biden said he was “absolutely comfortable” with marriage equality. The White House flipped, but Michele Obama felt that it was a blessing in disguise. The president’s staff hastily arranged an interview with Robin Roberts, following the script that Mehlman suggested. As he was leaving for the interview, Michelle told her husband, “Enjoy this day. You are free.”
In the end, the president’s caution was misplaced. Marriage equality was not the make-or-break issue that he feared. The question that the book raises is why Obama put politics before principle for so long, when in his heart he seems to have known better. Ultimately, that’s a question that only he can answer.