On Smoking and Not Inhaling

A commentary

Jim Burroway

May 7th, 2012

When then-Governor Bill Clinton was running for President in 1992, someone asked if he had ever smoked pot. His answer came to crystalize his much-discussed “triangularization” of contentious issues — he tried it once, but he didn’t inhale. Supposedly that answer would appeal to hip, young pot smokers (along with many fellow baby-boomers) and he, also supposedly, would avoid offending those who opposed marijuana use. We all know how well that worked out. Nobody believed him, but he was allowed to keep that charade going as long as everyone winked (or smirked) whenever they repeated his answer.

Fast-forward twenty years, and President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are answering questions about their support for marriage equality with a variation on the smoking-but-not-inhaling theme. But yesterday, in an appearance on Meet the Press, Biden came pretty close to taking an honest-to-god drag from the matrimonial reefer:

BIDEN: The good news is that as more and more Americans come to understand what this is all about is a simple proposition. Who do you love? Who do you love and will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out is what all marriages at their root are about. Whether they’re marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.

DAVID GREGORY: Is that what you believe now?

BIDEN: That’s what I believe.

GREGORY: And you’re comfortable with same-sex marriage now?

BIDEN: Look, I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am 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. And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.

The rest of the day was spent carefully parsing Biden’s words: did he or didn’t he endorse marriage equality? In my reading, I’d say he did, but he set an important caveat: he’s just the vice president; the President sets policy. But to be honest, my reading is no more and no less valid than anyone else’s. David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist, tried to slap the smoke from out of Biden’s lungs when he quickly tweeted, “What VP said — that all married couples should have exactly the same legal rights — is precisely POTUS’s position.”

And literally speaking, Axelrod’s right. Obama’s official position is that he wants to repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, his Justice Department is declining to defend DOMA in federal courts, his Homeland Security office is granting green cards to foreign partners of married same-sex couples, and his administration had provided an array of domestic partner benefits to large numbers of federal employees. Plus, his campaign has released statements against North Carolina’s Amendment 1 and a proposed anti-marriage amendment in Minnesota. And the last time anyone was able to ask Obama about his personal stance on same-sex marriage, he said that he supported equal rights for same-sex couples and he supported the rights of states to grant marriage equality, but that on the subject of marriage itself he was personally still “evolving” on the issue.

The conventional wisdom now goes that Obama is pretending not to support marriage equality and Americans are pretending to believe him. Except conventional wisdom is wrong because they’re not. Those who vigorously oppose marriage equality — and they are now a shrinking minority in this country at about 43% — already don’t believe him and aren’t giving him any credit for his presumably stalled evolutionary state. And those who do support marriage equality believes that he does too, and they’re just waiting for him and everyone else in his administration to just finally say so. Just like Mark Halperin on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, who says he will ask every cabinet secretary who appears on the program whether they support marriage equality. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was the first to answer the Morning Joe question this morning. “I do,” he said, sounding a lot like someone who has just taken a solemn vow before adding, “I don’t know that I’ve ever been asked publicly.”

All of this makes Obama’s charade of “evolving” look increasingly ridiculous. Just as the whole point of smoking pot is inhaling (and, Mr. Clinton notwithstanding, more than 100 million Americans have inhaled at least once), the whole point of doing all of the things that the Obama Administration is doing is to bring about a de-facto federal recognition of marriage to as many people as legally possible. There are still huge gaps — the IRS code, military spousal benefits, Social Security survivorship, inheritance taxes — which are still awaiting action. But if Obama doesn’t secretly believe in marriage equality, he’s sure behaving like someone who has taken a nice, long toke at the betrothal bong. And I’d say you’d have to be smoking something pretty powerful yourself to believe otherwise.


May 7th, 2012

Doesn’t the United Church of Christ support Marriage equality? Or is that left up to each church? Either way I remember this being mentioned in relation to Obama. It would say a lot that nobody would have ever looked into it though…


May 7th, 2012

The 2005 national assembly (called the General Synod) of the United Church of Christ did vote overwhelmingly to support marriage equality.

However, because the UCC is not a heirarchical church, and because each local congregation is autonomous, a local congregation can “dissent” from a position taken by the national assembly. And, certainly, individual members and clergy can disagree with such a position.

With regard to President Obama’s affiliation with the United Church of Christ, he left Trinity UCC in Chicago after his pastor’s sermon on the 9/11 attacks became public. He has not joined any other church. So, technically, Mr. Obama is no longer a member of the United Church of Christ.

Even if we was still UCC, he would be completely free within our way of being Christian to “evolve” at his own pace on any matter. Unlike some ways of being Christian, the UCC does not demand or expect all its members, clergy, and congretations to comply with national assembly decisions.


May 7th, 2012

I do not doubt the sincerity of Mr. Biden’s, Mr. Duncan’s, or Mr. Donovan’s views. Nor do I think they are “breaking ranks” with the President.

I think they are both signaling an willingness within the administration to bring the debate on marriage equality more to the table in the Democratic Party.

I also think they are testing the waters for a pro-marriage equality item in the Democratic platform.

I think this is exactly what the political role of the VP and Cabinet secretaries is: to allow the President to signal and test.


May 7th, 2012

With three Cabinet Secretaries and the VICE PRESIDENT now on public record supporting marriage equality, there is absolutely no reason for Hillary to not come out publicly in support of marriage equality.

Lindoro Almaviva

May 7th, 2012

I see what you are saying, but at the same time i see the move as somewhat shrude, if a little self servicing.

I believe he is waiting to get re-elected and when he does, then he will be in a position of endorsing marriage equality. In doing that, he will be the first president to do so while in office and he will have the added stregth that there is no election to loose. If he comes out and say it now, the republican party will have a field day and we will have a repeat of the 2008 ellections.

I agree that every times he says he is “evolving’ there is a perceived wink and a smile. The fact is that for as long as he keeps saying it, the republicans and the christian talibanists who have hijacked the party do not have a sounbite to use against him to try to create a wedge issue.

I am willing to play the game, for a little longer.


May 7th, 2012

revchicoucc: That’s what I figured, but thanks for clarifying it.


May 7th, 2012

As I understand it, the President’s positioning isn’t for those who are already for or against marriage, but for those who aren’t quite sure themselves. There are a significant number of people still in the “they ought to have rights, but…. marriage? I don’t know…” camp.

Richard Rush

May 7th, 2012

When then-Governor Bill Clinton was running for President in 1992, someone asked if he had ever smoked pot. His answer came to crystalize his much-discussed “triangularization” of contentious issues — he tried it once, but he didn’t inhale.

That sounds similar to a conversation I’d expect to occur at an Exodus conference:
Q: “Have you ever indulged in homosexual behavior?”
A: “I tried it once, but I (or he) pulled out before . . .”


May 7th, 2012


I don’t agree. I live in Chicago and was a t that big Grant Park rally when Obama won–and I think he was sincere when he said there was a lot of issues that he as president could not lead, that those who cared passionately about the issues would have to push the government.

With Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, his administration lad a lot of the groundwork but ultimately waited for the Log Cabin Republicans and OutServe to force the government’s hand on the issue. They laid some of the track and jumped on the train once it had picked up speed, but he and his administration never led the charge.

If same-sex marriage does expand federally under his second term, it will have to happen the same way. The difference is that he would likely hop on that train once it was moving while Romney has signed a pledge to do what he can to stop it. But he and this administration are never going to lead on this issue.


May 8th, 2012

Same-sex marriage cannot expand federally. Same-sex marriage can only expand at the state level because that’s where marriage laws are made. The federal govt can recognize state marriage laws.

That may be what is meant by the idea of federal expansion. DOMA would have to be repealed by Congress and Congress would have to pass a law specifically stating that all marriages legal in any state shall be considered legal marriages for federal purposes.

The President cannot order such things. That’s not how our federal and separation of powers system works.


May 8th, 2012

And the administration is already refusing to defend DOMA part 2 (which involves federal recognition of all marriage licenses valid in the state they were performed in) in the courts.

Eric in Oakland

May 8th, 2012

If Obama is trying to be coy, it would seem to be a lose/lose strategy. Conservatives already assume he supports gay marriage, while liberals take his silence as reticence.

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