From the press drubbing of White House press secretary Jay Carney this week, you'd think that the Obama administration had made some sort of huge faux pas, had displayed some devastating lack of discipline that exposed a divergence of opinion at the top and an inability to control it.
Here's what happened: Vice President Joe Biden went on TV on Sunday and said he was "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage. This is a notable, but not all that interesting, difference of opinion from that of President Obama, who has backed the idea of civil unions but has balked at the idea of full-on gay marriage. Shock! Score! Big story!
It would be easy to believe that Biden, who (unfortunately but also endearingly) tends to say what's in his head at the moment without first screening it for public consumption, had made a mistake by revealing his personal feelings on the matter. It's why Biden is referred to, by people who don't know him, as "gaffe-prone." It's why reporters who covered him as a U.S. senator always found him refreshing and frank and real (even if he did, on occasion, say he just had three seconds to talk and then 15 minutes later, you were kindly explaining you had a deadline and had to go). And it's also why people could believe the highly improbable theory that Biden screwed up, said something that contradicted the president, and forced Carney to try to clean it up.
Obama's well-positioned for re-election, but that means rallying a lot of supporters who really liked the idea of a transformational candidate in 2008, and now aren't so sure much has been transformed. Mitt Romney will surely have to do better than saying, "I'm not that guy," to win the White House. But Obama can't get his base to the polls by saying, yeah, I know I didn't do everything I promised or hoped, but think how much worse it would be if you elected the other guy. He needs to get the base to the polls.
Gays and lesbians are part of that equation. They're not a huge part of the equation, but in a race where battleground states could be decided by a couple of percentage points, Obama can't risk losing them. And yet, he can't freak out the independents who might not be so comfortable with gay marriage. And perhaps even more, he can't so anger evangelicals (who are unhappy with Romney and might stay home) that they actually enthusiastically go out and vote for Romney.
What to do, what to do.
Well you could have your vice president saying he's OK with gay marriage (becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official ever to make such a statement), making gay and lesbian activists (and their straight supporters) happy. Then, you could have the White House officially saying Obama's opinion on the matter is still "evolving," appeasing independents and yet giving gay activists hope that Obama might "evolve" toward the direction of his veep. And you could also give a little comfort to those who like to believe that Obama picks people who are true advisers, and not just sycophants.
And just to be sure, your Department of Education secretary, Arne Duncan, by happenstance mentions on a national broadcast that he, too, supports gay marriage. Look at those high-ranking Obama administration officials, coming out for gay marriage! And look at the president, not just giving in to people he outranks!
The "mixed message" the White House issued on gay and lesbian rights wasn't a mistake. It was brilliant.